An unknown film offers an important message

December 23, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

This summer's hit movie, "Menace II Society," offered a bleak portrait of life in the inner city: the hopelessness and the anger and the despair; the self-destructive, kill-and-be-killed mentality of some young black men.

Now comes a film with a very different vision. "Sankofa" has opened in virtual obscurity in Washington with a powerful, emotionally gut-wrenching portrait of slavery. There is anger and despair in this movie as well -- but, curiously, not the hopelessness. Somehow, the Africans in "Sankofa" carry themselves with greater dignity than the African- Americans in "Menace." They seem to possess a greater sense of self-worth, a firmer grasp of who they are and what they are capable of becoming.

Taken together, the two movies deliver a profound message: One generation of blacks -- closer to its African roots and culture -- was physically enslaved but spiritually free. The other generation -- culturally isolated and lost -- is physically free but spiritually enslaved.

There also is a pretty profound message in the way these two films were received.

Twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes were 20 years old and had begun promising careers making music videos when they signed with New Line Cinema to chronicle their version of life in the inner city. The two grew up in Detroit.

"We wanted to make a film about this concrete Vietnam," says Allen Hughes. "We wanted to show how kids become what they become, how the environment affects them. People kill over money, women, turf. People kill to show they're men."

The two fed what has become a voracious appetite for stories about the culture of attitude and violence of inner city gangstas: in movies, in fashions, in music and videos. And the brothers were well rewarded. "Menace II Society" cost $3.5 million to make but grossed over $27 million in less than a year.

In contrast, it took the husband and wife team of Haile Gerima and Shirikiana Aina well over a decade to piece together the $1 million needed to produce "Sankofa." Since the major film studios dismissed the script as just another "Roots," the couple relied on grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, television stations in Germany and England, and the West African nations of Ghana and Burkina Faso.

Mr. Gerima says the message of his movie is found in its title. "Sankofa," he says, is a West African word meaning "returning to your roots, recovering what you've lost and moving forward."

Major American distributors refused to touch the film even after "Sankofa" won awards and rave reviews on the international film festival circuit this summer.

But a group of people in the Washington area launched a grass roots effort to have it shown -- with the result that it has been playing to healthy houses at the Jenifer Theater since October 22. A similar grass roots effort is under way to take the film on tour, including a possible date in Baltimore early next year.

"Audiences have been nursed by other images of Africans and African Americans -- images that were entirely manufactured by Europeans -- so we realize that we will have to undertake a slow, careful process of audience-building," says Ms. Aina, 38, who grew up in Detroit, like the Hughes brothers. Mr. Gerima, 47, was born in Ethiopia and teaches film at Howard University.

A stunning achievement in "Sankofa" is the sense of realism it conveys about those Africans taken as slaves.

Key roles were played by African actors and actresses. The movie was shot on location in Ghana and on a former sugar cane plantation in Jamaica. Though much of the story is familiar, the characters seem to exude a dignity and self worth rarely seen in film portrayals of slaves.

Mr. Gerima is very critical of the movie-makers and rappers who are cashing in on the gangsta craze; he calls them "murderers with microphones and cameras." He notes that although such artists think they are exposing mainstream society to a new and disturbing truth about the inner city, they actually are echoing the same negative images about blacks that have always prevailed.

I agree with him. In fact, I think of "Sankofa" as the type of movie the Hughes brothers might have made -- if they had been older, and wiser, and closer to their cultural roots.

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