“Sankofa” and Us: How Looking Back Moves Us Forward

By: Niki Wilkes

The critical reception of the 1993 film Sankofa, especially from those with an academic interest in the field of slave narrative studies, has made it a significant member of slavery film canon. To teach a film study class on slavery without including Sankofa would be like teaching a nineteenth-century British Literature class without mentioning Jane Austen. Over its twenty years of existence, the film has sparked both conversation and controversy, most of which surround the concept of “sankofa” and whether Gerima’s exploration of the topic can transcend his intended audience to give a commentary on contemporary global issues related to slavery.

Sankofa is the story of an African-American supermodel named Mona doing a photo shoot in Ghana who is sent back in time by an angered African holy man to experience slavery so that she can better understand her forgotten roots. The film’s director, Haile Gerima, explores through her journey an ideology called sankofa, which means, “to retrieve the past to move forward” (Dorsey par 1). This film has a particular interest in exploring how the characters actively pursued the ideals of sankofa. Through Mona’s character, the audience sees the benefits of this idea by experiencing her fear-turned-admiration for the African holy man, which was Gerima’s way of portraying the change he wanted African Americans to make in regards to appreciating their heritage and understanding their roots.

Sankofa Bird (Image Source)

Sankofa Bird (Image Source)

Critics such as Noah Berlatsky and Caryn James found this transformation to be a powerful one, well-represented in the film. Mona starts out, as James explains in his article, “dressed in a pseudo-Tina Turner getup complete with blond wig,” evidently showing the audience that she has lost all ties to her past, despite being in her home country (par. 3). Berlatsky goes on to point out in his article, “What Movies About Slavery Teach Us About Race Relations Today,” that Mona’s fear of her past is made more evident when they go to the castle and Mona encounters the holy man for the first time. This occurred just after the beach photo shoot scene where a white photographer is making explicit commands to “let the camera do it to you.” Despite the evident sexual objectification, Mona runs to hide behind the photographer when the holy man frightens her with the message of sankofa in a language she does not understand. Berlatsky also points out that when she enters the past, she denies her heritage by shouting “I’m not African. I’m American” (1). This is a stark contrast to the end of the movie, where Mona symbolically shows the level of her transformation by listening and approaching the drumming of the holy man and ignoring the voice of the white cameraman (Berlatsky 2). This is a powerful expression of sankofa’s transformative property, which was intended to shock African-American audience members so that they would begin to strive to understand their roots.  For other viewers, who may not have that direct heritage, Mona’s journey still shows how truly diving into the pain and suffering of past slave victims makes returning to the life of blissful ignorance impossible.

Nijla Mumin also praises the film for the work it is doing to give the audience a new type of narrative. She explains that, unlike most films about slavery, Sankofa has no “white savior.” The concept is common in slave stories where the slave must be saved from captivity by a benevolent member of the non-slave class. According to Mumin, Gerima removes slaves from “out of the one-dimensional, passive, ‘victim’ role, and embodies them with complications that manifest in active resistance, personal conflict, and compelling stories” (par. 3). This idea is supremely important to the concept of sankofa because it requires the person to take an active role in reclaiming themselves.

Sankofa gives audience members the other side of a slavery narrative, which shows how a slave can regain his or her agency. Deeper than that, however, is that the film shows that we are all connected to the roots of slavery. Gerima focuses on African slavery in the Americas, but Mona’s journey can figuratively be our journey as well. Slavery has touched every corner of history and the globe, meaning that we are connected to the institution in one way or the other. We can be both ancestors of slaves and slaveholders. We can also be possible victims or current perpetrators of modern slavery. Films like Sankofa show us that being directly and powerfully exposed to the harsh realities of slavery is sometimes the only way to wake us up. While we will never be forced into the extreme circumstance of Mona, many of us are personally shocked into advocacy by past narratives of slavery. We must look back to move forward.


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Works Cited

Berlatsky, Noah. “What Movies About Slavery Teach Us About Race Relations Today.” The Atlantic. 2 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 Sep. 2014.

Dorsey, John. “Sankofa: Past Is Prologue.” The Baltimore Sun. n.p., 28 Sept. 1995. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.

James, Caryn. “Sankofa (1993) Review/Film; Reliving a Past of Slavery.” New York Times. 8 April 1994. Web. 14 Sep. 2014.

Mumin, Nijla. “Sankofa Revisited (L.A. Rebellion Film Series)” Indiewire. n.p. 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

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Slavery and the White Savior: Then and Now

By: Sadie Brown

In reviews of Django Unchained, the film is often criticized for its portrayal of the white savior figure. In his review of the film, Matthew Hughey tells readers why Django is not a revenge fantasy:

Django is no antebellum-era Shaft.  King Schultz not only buys Django’s freedom, trains him in the art of bounty hunting, finds Django’s stolen wife Broomhilda, kills his wife’s master Calvin Candie, but ends up sacrificing his life for Django and Broomhilda’s freedom.  His rampage arises not from a love for his people, but out of affection for a single person.  Django is not a cause of black liberation, but an effect of a white paternal redeemer. (Hughey np)

Tarantino focuses so much attention on the white characters that the black characters become static and forgotten. While Django Unchained is neither the first nor last narrative to capitalize on the white savior trope, it has made it easier for viewers to identify what the ideology of the white savior entails.

When watching a film like Django Unchained, it is important to know that the trope of the white savior has a long history. By examining the film alongside a 17th century text written by author Samuel Sewall, I will show how the portrayal of the white savior can be recognized and compared across both narratives. Comparing Tarantino’s white savior figure to that of Sewall’s helps demonstrate how the trope stems from feelings of superiority. In The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial (1700), Sewall argues against those who support slavery. He states: “And all things considered, it would conduce more to the Welfare of the Province, to have White Servants for a Term of Years, than to have Slaves for Life. Few can endure to hear of a Negro’s being made free; and indeed they can seldom use their freedom well; yet their continual aspiring after their forbidden Liberty, renders them Unwilling Servants” (547). Like Django Unchained, Sewall’s narrative complicates the ties between slavery and superiority. Sewall exerts his power by taking on the role of a white savior. Rather than arguing for the equal treatment of slaves and whites alike, Sewall uses his social position as a powerful white male to discuss why African Americans do not belong in his community. His remarks show how little he thinks of African Americans – saying that they are incapable of using their freedom “well.” This quote demonstrates how abolitionist writings, or films such as Django Unchained, can become tied up with issues of white superiority.

Tarantino’s film did not create the white savior character, but it did make the trope better known. By further investigating earlier texts that also boasted a white savior, we are able to more easily understand why this trope is so tied up in portrayals of slavery. It could be that, by changing the emphasis, the audience feels compelled to focus more on the white savior in his attempt to “save” the slaves from their lives of servitude, rather than causing the audience to focus primarily on the plight of the African Americans slaves themselves. The white savior trope allows a white audience a distraction from feeling guilty about historical acts of slavery. For this reason, both Django Unchained and The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial capitalize on the audience’s desire to invest energy in the figure of the white savior. While Tarantino’s film deals with white guilt as well as the white savior, Sewall’s text concerns the detrimental efforts of slavery in his community and how it would be better off without African American slaves. Whatever the intentions may be, we can see from these examples that the trope of the white savior is another form of superiority.

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Works Cited

Sewall, Samuel. The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial. Ed. Sidney Kaplan. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1969.

Hughey, Matthew. “Slavery, Emancipation, and the Great White Benefactor in Django Unchained and Lincoln.” Race. Research. Rambling. 6 Apr. 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2014  (link)