Haile Gerima’s epic film #SANKOFA was released on @netflix this week. Originally made in 1993, it’s been restored courtesy of another unique film maker Ava DuVernay @Ava @ARRAYNow.
Now, if you work in diversity, in race and culture, or are a citizen of the world searching for answers to racism, in this extraordinary film, and it needs to be emphasised “extraordinary”, this film was then, and is now too of its time.
I don’t want to give too much away that may disrupt your viewing, but Gerima, a Howard University film professor’s script unveils the structure of racism hierarchy on the plantations and the brutality that existed.
There are scenes that predate Steve McQueen’s “12 years a Slave”. There’s also a structure that precedes Chris Nolan’s elliptical filming structure cinephiles can’t get enough of. Clever! I won’t say more than that? The iniquities of Christianity are also laid bare. Remember the puritans such as Cotton Mather who used religion and white iconography to create the origins of racism.
In this film you’re shown a glimpse of that and how Europeans used religion for their own ends. Remarkably still, Gerima directs large swathes of Twi dialogue ( with no subtitles) in the film. Twi is the language spoken by Ashantis. It might be disconcerting if you don’t understand, but the visual schema does more than make up for the incomprehension. For me an Ashanti and Twi speaker it was extremely gratifying and the acting which was physical was exemplary and gave such realism to the film I was visibly upset. A belated Palme d’Or certainly.
What Gerima achieved was a multi-layered film of different communities, West Indians ( speaking patios) and Africans trying to cope together.
As I watched it, I couldn’t help but murmur, “Genius”. The logistics, locations, resources to make this film as an indie would have been crippling. I imagine the slog of getting permission to film in one of the main slave castles with extras would have been herculean. You have to appreciate Ghanaian protocol to know what I mean.
The film was not widely distributed. Gerima and and his wife, Shirkiana distributed within their networks, so I’m reckoning they didn’t turn over a rewarding profit. All that said, it is a must watch on Netflix. The image above is one I took visiting a slave castle where I learned my great grandfather played a significant hand. I’m still unpacking.
At the castle a tour guide locked us in one of the dungeons for 2 minutes to give us an insight into the treacherous conditions slaves endured before walking beyond the “point of no return” on a ship bound for the Americas.
The Slave trade isn’t a relic of the past or a museum piece, it was an inhumane barbaric oppressive satanic practice, and its legacy of subjugating a people lives with us today. This film connects that, powerfully!
Nowhere in the league of Gerima and a different experience entirely but three years after Gerima’s film the head of CNN/ Turner Africa and I were in Ghana planning a unique broadcast. Fairly fresh from living and reporting in South Africa, I was asked to launch Ghana TV’s first Breakfast Show. Then we had an idea. What if we could take the show to South Africa for the Ghanaians to research and broadcast issues unique to them. There was no external lens they could use. The shows ( 7, 1-hour) were duly broadcast and then forgotten about.
I’ve since rediscovered the tapes and following a global competition working with a specialist archive producer José Velázquez, @josev2046 the films are being digitised. Amongst its content is a piece focusing on Ghanaian graduates and PhD trying to make a living in South Africa by selling fresh produce. We filmed from the beginning of the day in which 12 people sleep in one small room, to them travelling miles to acquire their goods and then selling on the streets. It was sobering! The other side of the spectrum features interviews with the likes of Quincy Jones in Soweto. More details to follow.