Ethiopian-American filmmaker Haile Gerima’s 1993 gem “Sankofa” is both a landmark of indie cinema and a benchmark on the storytelling road between TV’s “Roots” and the Oscar winning drama, “12 Years a Slave.”
It’s a poetic, mystical and meandering immersion in the life-as-a-slave experience, both for the viewer and for our on-screen surrogate, the callow fashion model Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano), who has come with a white photographer for a photo shoot on the grim, hallowed ground of an old slaver’s fortress on the coast of Ghana.
She is smiling, showcasing swimsuits and flashing skin in a place where untold thousands of Africans were held before being loaded into ships for the horrors of the Middle Passage to the Americas, a place now treated as a tourist attraction for the well-heeled and the curious.
An old shaman (Kofi Ghanaba) who calls himself “Sankofa” paints his body and pounds his drums each day at the entrance of the place, remembering the tragedy there, perhaps chanting to exorcise its evil. He gets right in Mona’s face about her cavalier attitude towards this landmark.
She may not understand his torrent of angry words, but she and we get the picture. Respect this place, and respect yourself and where you came from, while you’re at it.
Taking a tour into the dungeons, Mona watches the lights dim, and woodfires alight. She sees the faces of the shackled and enslaved, waiting to board a ship. She tries to flee, but finds the entrance guarded by slavers. She is stripped, screaming, and branded.
“Sankofa” has her awaken in a new life with no apparent memory of her modern one. She is a house slave in the Lafayette sugar cane plantation in Louisiana, struggling to love a West Indian field hand (Mutubaruka) and like others, pondering her fate and her future in this system where human beings are abused, raped, bought and sold with no control over their lives.
Some who run have the courage to rage at the beatings they face upon capture — “You can’t do nothing to my soul, only to my FLESH!”
The head field hand Joe (Nick Medley) is nicknamed “Bible Boy” by his fellow slaves. He is slow to recognize the truth of his fair-skinned bi-racial heritage. His mother was raped on the Middle Passage. He wants answers from the white Catholic priest (Reggie Carter).
“Whose son am I?”
At some point, you just know the “keep them in line” Christian padre will use the same word the overseer does to describe Joe.
Gerima (“Teza,””Bush Mama”) folds in varied pieces of the enslaved experience, including the runaway-backed underground, which helps the Lafayette slaves plot an insurrection.
Its easy-to-follow if somewhat disjointed narrative has a stream of consciousness feel and Gospel solos and plaintive jazz horns underscore the shifting points of view, with Mona — now called Shala — tying it all together and commenting on slave life in voice-over narration. Her journey is from complacent acceptance to radicalization, both as a slave and in her modern life as a model who has her consciousness awakened.
What’s striking all these years later is how Gerima was able to get good performances and create realistic settings with almost no money. He doesn’t have the cash to rent a wooden ship, so he skips that part of the story. He only shows the plantation house from afar and stages most of the action and interactions in cane fields, in the woods or the vast Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.
Gerima, whom I interviewed back in the ’90s when he was showing the film at North Carolina’s state film school, never got proper distribution for “Sankofa,” so he took it around the US, booking theaters and showing it to paying audiences.
Although it’s been available on other streamers, the new Array 4K restoration, added to Netflix on Friday, is its best chance to reach a wide audience, an indie classic ready to be “discovered” by a new generation.
Rating: unrated, violence, rape, nudity
Cast: Oyafunmike Ogunlano, Nick Medley, Mutubaruka, Alexandra Duah,
Kofi Ghanaba and Reggie Carter
Credits: Scripted and directed by Haile Gerima. An Array 4K restoration on Netflix Sept. 24
Running time: 2:04