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.