What Movies About Slavery Teach Us About Race Relations Today

Unlike 12 Years a Slave, the 1993 film Sankofa doesn't feature a "white savior," reminding viewers that the present is still full of exploiters.
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There are relatively few movies about slavery. Wikipedia lists about 30 total, and that includes films like Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and Spartacus, which are not especially interested in the experience of slaves in the antebellum South. In comparison, there are more than 180 films about the Holocaust (not counting documentaries). It's true that the Holocaust was more recent—but, on the other hand, slavery occurred in the U.S., home of Hollywood. You'd think film might have something to say about it.

Perhaps things will change, given the enormous critical success of this year's 12 Years a Slave. But should we want them to? What do we gain, if anything, from the cinematic portrayal of slavery? What would we get from 180 films about slavery, or from 30? Or, for that matter, from one?

Sankofa, one of those 30 slavery films, suggests that films about slavery in the past can offer compelling perspectives on whom to trust, and whom not to trust, in the present. Released in 1993, it was directed by Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian filmmaker based in the United States. "Sankofa" is a word in the Akan language of Ghana meaning "to take back and get it," and the movie is in fact a time-travel story. A model named Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano) is on a photo shoot in Ghana at Cape Coast Castle, where slavers kept their captives. She is approached by an old, angry man called Sankofa (played by the famous drummer Kofi Ghanaba). Sankofa upbraids Mona for defiling a place where her ancestors suffered, and curses her—"Back to the past! Return to your source!" Sure enough, Mona, wandering around the castle, suddenly finds herself face-to-face with slaves, and is then captured and branded by slavers. She then slips across space as well, losing her memory and becoming a woman named Shola on a Jamaican slave plantation.

As in 12 Years a Slave, then, Sankofa focuses on the experiences of an outsider; someone who is thrust into slavery temporarily, rather than living there permanently. The protagonists in both, in other words, are analogies for the viewer, who is also experiencing slavery at a remove, and only for a time.

Sankofa makes this parallel much more explicitly—and makes it do much more ideological work. When we first see Mona, she is posing for the camera on the beach, writhing and giggling on the sand in a swimsuit as her white photographer (and perhaps boyfriend?) encourages her. "More sex, Mona!" "Let the camera do it to you, Mona!" he shouts, making various untoward noises. When Sankofa accosts her and accuses her (through translated subtitles we can read, but she can't) of having lost her relationship to her past, she scurries around behind the photographer for protection. Later, when she first falls into the past, she screams at the slavers, "I'm not African. I'm American!" She wants her distance from her ancestry, and her relationship to white people, to defend her. The film is dedicated to showing her that neither is to be relied upon.

In plot, Sankofa is often incoherent, lurching from one set-piece atrocity to another on the plantation, skipping important scenes to relate them in voice over (like Mona/Shola's escape attempt) while lingering on less important details. In theme, though, it is remarkably focused, even obsessed, with betrayal and faithfulness. This is exemplified in Joe (Nick Medley), a half-white, devout Christian overseer. His multiple commitments to the whites lead him to reject his mother, Nunu (Alexandra Duah), a slave born in Africa, who serves as the moral center of the film. Nunu's connection with and memory of her African past gives her power and authority. Another slave woman enthusiastically relates the story of how Nunu used magic to strike an overseer dead where he stood, and when a pregnant woman is whipped to death, it is Nunu who successfully delivers the baby. Meanwhile, Joe, with his divided loyalties, staggers about casting mournful glances this way and that while committing various atrocities almost despite himself. As Nunu says (implicating present-day Mona), "You can't expect to be a head man for the white man and not do horrible things to people."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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