Sankofa (1993) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A hidden masterwork you should check out right now

Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima’s 1993 film “Sankofa”, which recently had a 4K restoration thanks to Ava DuVernay’s independent distribution company ARRAY and then was released on Netflix in US in last week, is simply extraordinary to say the least. As a sort of invocation on the tragic past of slave trade in Africa and US in the 19th century, the movie gradually lets us observe and reflect on the evil and horror of the slavery during that time, and it also reminds us of the importance of remembering the past before moving onto the future with wisdom, power, and hope.

The opening part of the film, which is unfolded at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, may be a bit too symbolic, but it is striking enough to hold our attention. We see an old guy chanting and beating a drum for a while, and then this curious moment is followed by a young African American model having a photography session along with a Caucasian photographer. As these two figures freely do there work here and there around the castle, we hear a bit about the history background of the castle from a tour guide leading a bunch of tourists, and then the model happens to be confronted by that old dude, who firmly demands to her that she should look back into the past of her ancestors.

The old man is eventually chased away by the guards of the castle, but our heroine becomes a bit more curious about the history behind the castle. She decides to look around inside the castle for herself, and, what do you know, she soon finds herself somehow going through a sort of time travel. She suddenly sees a bunch of helpless slaves bound in chain right in front of her eyes, and she frantically tries to go outside as soon as possible, but then she is captured by several slave traders and then put back inside the castle.

After that narrative point, our heroine begins to go through the life of a young slave woman named Shola (Oyafunmike Ogunlano), and she phlegmatically narrates on how life has been hard, cruel, and difficult for her and many other slaves in a sugar cane plantation located somewhere in Louisiana. Although she does not have to work as a housemaid, Shola often sees how many other slaves are forced to work a lot everyday, and their Caucasian masters and several head slaves are certainly ready to whip any of them if that is necessary.

Nevertheless, there have been quiet resistance and endurance among many slaves in the plantation. In case of Shola’s West Indian slave boyfriend Shango (Mutabaruka), he has been patiently waiting for any opportunity for rebellion, and we later see him and several other slaves having a secret meeting at a hidden spot outside the plantation. Although there is not much chance for overthrowing their Caucasian masters at present, they still hope for freedom nonetheless, and their clandestine meeting keeps growing day by day.

One of the key members is a middle-aged slave woman named Nunu (Alexandra Duah), who has been a kind of spiritual mother to many of slaves in the plantation. She often tells others a fairy tale which turns out to be based on her sad life story, and everyone around her listens to her somber storytelling although they probably heard it many times before.

And we also get to know two different head slaves who mean a lot to Nunu in each own way. After recently becoming more conflicted about his role between other slaves and his Caucasian masters, Noble Ali (Afemo Omilami) comes to lean more on Nunu, and Nunu does not mind this at all. While she also points out to him that their class gap remains same as before, she helps Noble Ali attain some personal redemption for him, and that is one of a few humorous moments in the film.

In case of Joe (Nick Medley), his relationship with Nunu is quite complicated because he is her only son. Having influenced a lot by a local Caucasian priest for years, Joe has distanced himself a lot from his mother and her own religious belief, but that does not change the fact that he is just a slave who happens to be a bit above other slaves, and he is consequently driven into more self-hate – especially when he miserably fails in his little private encounter with a young slave woman who has been sincerely pining for him.

As leisurely rolling around these several different characters, the movie also presents several brutal scenes presenting many dark and deplorable aspects of the slavery in US, and Gerima and his crew members wisely present these violent moments with considerate restraint while never overlooking what the main characters have to suffer and endure. These grim moments in the film are occasionally contrasted with a number of surprisingly haunting moments of poetic beauty, and the cinematography by Augustin Cubano is often stunning for its dexterous utilization of locations and natural light.

In conclusion, “Sankofa” is unforgettable for not only its relevant main subject but also its rich and distinctive mood and style to be admired. To be frank with you, I had never heard of the film before reading a passionate review by Robert Daniels in last week, and, after finally watching it at last night, I really appreciate his enthusiastic recommendation. In short, this is a hidden masterwork you should check it out right now, and I sincerely hope that it will be watched by more audiences out there because of its recent release on Netflix.

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