Proper Punishment?: “Sankofa” and the Politics of Punishment

By: Morgan Aprill

Sankofa (1993) is an independent film that, as director Haile Gerima explained, sought to reconnect African Americans with their forgotten pasts. Gerima’s film follows an African-American model named Mona as she is transported back in time to a slave plantation in the Western Hemisphere. The exact location is unclear, but the film works to encourage African Americans to connect to their ancestral past as the main character Mona is forced to literally relive life as a slave. The film also centers on the African slaves on the plantation who plan a rebellion against their captors, something quite unique among many other films about American slavery (recent films Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave both include a white savior).  Gerima used his film to call African Americans to action and to reclaim their past to strengthen their present existence via an emphasis on their African heritage, and he was unafraid to address issues that Hollywood would not. However, the director’s motivations are questionable when we look at his execution, especially when it comes to Mona and the initiation of the storyline.

Haile Gerima has repeatedly stated that his vision was to create a film that brought back to life the struggles of African-Americans’ past.  For example, in an interview with Diane Turner and Muata Kamdibe, Gerima said that “[he] needed to do a film on the silent violence against the children of Africa because they were created in Africa” (974). In other words, he saw many African Americans who were not talking about the violence in their ancestral past and believed this needed to be changed—even enforced. An African man himself, he seemed particularly concerned with what he saw as African Americans distancing themselves from the violence of their collective past. Gerima particularly wanted African Americans to realize their need to accept their African heritage, as he portrays through Mona’s transformation. Gerima believes reliving the past is essential.

I think it is important to criticize Gerima’s shaming of African Americans. His belief that many are in denial and not African enough gives off an aura of superiority. He resembles his own guardian character who forces Mona to relive a traumatic history whether she likes it or not. Mona loses her own agency and is punished for acting in accordance with the society she saw around her—one that values physical appearance and immediacy. Is her punishment based on her irreverence for the slave castle where she is doing a photo shoot? Or is it perhaps heightened due to the sexual nature of the shoot on the beach as the photographer commands her: “Let the camera do it to you, Mona”? How would this film be different if it was a male model who was at the castle? Would a male model be punished so severely for posing in a provocative way on the beach near the slave castle? It seems like something is going on here relating to the policing of black women’s bodies and their sexualities. Mona seems to be punished for her assimilation into American culture as a model for the fashion industry and one who shouts to her captors, when transported in time, that she is “not an African!”

Mona also seems to be punished for allowing her sexuality to be exploited for profit through the sexy photo shoot. Yet there are many images of her naked body and her rape within the film itself. The line between exploitation/voyeurism and a justifiable forced remembrance of sexual violence is pretty hazy in Sankofa. While Mona is showing control of her sexuality as she models on the beach, once she is transported back to the slave plantation, we see her bare breasts as she is stripped naked and branded; we see her fully naked at the end of the film; and we see sex being used as a punishment as she is raped repeatedly throughout the film by her master. It’s almost as if Gerima is suggesting that asserting your sexuality as a black female should be shameful because of how many were raped and abused sexually during American slavery. There is a sexual shaming evident in Mona’s sentencing to relive slavery. How is that reclaiming anything for women who were tortured sexually and made objects during the history of American slavery?

The fact that Mona is sent back to experience the trials of slavery without a choice seems hasty and sexually charged. Is it her fault that she just did what helped her succeed as an African American woman in her career path? Gerima seems to think societal pressures and stereotypes are not an excuse, and that it’s more important for blacks to emphasize an Afro-centric identity. Using an old castle for a photo shoot that once held slaves who were deported to the Americas does have a blatant feeling of disrespect. If Mona had been posing in homage to those who were shackled and sent to the Americas from that location, perhaps the guardian would have looked on Mona with more respect. It seems the issue comes with the cameraman’s appeal to Mona to be sexy in her photos. There is a time and place to be sexy, the guardian and Gerima seem to say, and the castle of your ancestors is not one of them. However, the offense that Mona seems to be committing is hardly worth such harsh punishment as branding, whipping, rape, and torture. Could not the guardian have given her a stern lecture instead? Ultimately, Sankofa was an important and groundbreaking film, but it still carries questionable ethics and politics when it comes to its overall plot and execution. In this way it is hardly successful and actually fairly problematic when we consider these issues of gender and sexual violence in slavery.


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Work Cited

Turner, Diane D. and Muata Kamdibe. “Haile Gerima: In Search of an African Cinema.” Journal of Black Studies 38.6 (2008): 968-991. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

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