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.

Channel Four Films

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."

In his recent piece at Salon, Daniel José Older writes about his frustration with the white savior character played by Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave. Sankofa has no white savior. On the contrary, the force of the narrative is to break Mona/Shola's commitment to, and investment in, the white power structure. Shortly after she becomes Shola, her lover Shango (Mutabaruka), encourages her to use her position as a house slave to poison the white family. She refuses, saying it is evil to kill—unconsciously relaying, perhaps, the attitude of her former, future self. Over the course of the movie, though, as she, and we, are witness to the trauma of slavery, including the repeated rape of Shola herself, the commitment to non-violence becomes less and less tenable. Finally, at the conclusion of the film, Shola coldly and decisively hacks her abuser to death with a machete. She then returns to the future, where, as Mona, she somberly ignores her crass white, sexually exploitive cameraman in order to listen to Sankofa's drumming (which, like the rest of the soundtrack by David J. White, is well worth listening to).

Sankofa opens with an ominous voice over declaring, "Lingering spirit of the dead, rise up and possess your bird of passage… step out and claim your story." That's an exhortation to Mona, obviously, but it's also directed to the viewers, who claim their story by watching the movie. And that story is one of solidarity and of wariness. White people in this film are (like that camera man) still exploiters. White priests like the one who mentors Joe are on the side of the oppressors. Sankofa sees film about slavery not just as a way to remember, but as a survival technique—a way to identify who the enemies are, and how to defend yourselves from them.

That's not the only message that narratives about slavery can offer. 12 Years a Slave and even the revenge-happy Django are both much less adamant in their distrust of whites. Octavia Butler's Kindred, another slavery time-travel story, sees the past not as a source of strength or solidarity, but rather as a kind of open wound, disruptive and inescapable. There's more than a touch of this in Sankofa as well; when Mona first slips into the past, she is terrified not by the slavers, but by the dispassionately accusatory stares of the manacled slaves.

Still, even if Sankofa's take is not the only reason to have films about slavery, it is one reason. Holocaust films make sure we don't repeat the past. Slavery films, Sankofa suggests, make sure we are able to negotiate oppression in the present. That slavery "we" is considerably more specific and pointed in an American context than the Holocaust "we," which is likely why we've got so many more Holocaust films telling us not to repeat somebody else's sins than slavery films reminding us that lots of people are still dealing with America's.

Much of Sankofa is heavy-handed and even offensive. Among other things, it walks right up to presenting as corrupt or compromised black people who date whites, or who have a white parent, or who are Christians. But I think its flaws actually strengthen its case for the necessity of more films about its subject. Slavery is a past that is present in every detail of American life, from faith, to family, to love. It's not one story, but many. To claim that story, there needs to be more than one, and for that matter, more than 30 tellings.