In impressive 'Sankofa,' the slaves are individuals for a change

February 18, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The lost voices of America belong to slaves. Of course in their time, no historians bothered with them because the prevailing theory held that history was made by generals and presidents. When the absurdity of this position became clear it was essentially too late, though a number of after-the-fact slave memoirs have been uncovered.

Popular culture has fared no better in redressing this grievance. Too many examinations of slavery have turned out to be "Mandingo"-like pap hellbent on exploiting the sexual tensions implicit in institutionalized domination. Then something like "Roots," while powerful enough in its time, had a certain TV miniseries blandness that exiled it from true empathy.

Now along comes "Sankofa," which opens today at the `f Westview. Directed by an Ethiopian-American filmmaker, it takes its first priority the restoration of the slave voice and a dramatization of the slave culture. It presents a first: slaves with deep inner lives, passions, complex meshes of guilt and reluctance and tangled motivation. Slaves, in other words, as human beings.

The movie, directed by Haile Gerima, a professor at Howard University, is constructed in one sense as a rebuke; one of its agendas appears to be the restoration of African culture to centrality in American black culture. It begins, in Ghana, shipping point for the slave trade, where Mona, a glamorous black model in a bright orange wig, is being photographed for a fashion spread on the beach near an old castle. The woman, played by Oyafunmike Ogunlano, has been clearly westernized, even eroticized: The photo shoot is presented in nearly sexual terms. She has no idea that she's in a holy place whose walls and chambers throb with the woe of her people.

She's upbraided by a Holy Man, dismisses him, but then, breaking off from her photographer, she's literally seized by the hands and arms of the past, yanked back through time to some time in the 18th century, and now sees the site as it was: It's only a castle from the outside; from the inside, it's a warren of cells all jammed with flesh being stocked up for shipment to the United States.

Gerima has a particular theatrical genius, and he gives these scenes great terror and fury. But the movie soon relocates to a Southern plantation, where Mona is now Shola, a house slave secretly in love with Shango (Mutabaruka, a Jamaican poet), a field slave with rebellious tendencies.

Gradually, other personalities emerge: Nunu (Alexandra Duah), the head of the house slaves who clings desperately to her African identity to avoid being swallowed by the immensity of her despair; and her son Joe (Marylander Nick Medley), who's turned for release to religion and has become the mentee to Father Raphael (Reginald Carter). Gradually, a whole structure of oppression emerges: We see how insidiously the system is designed to turn slave against slave using headmen, drawn from the population, to discipline their own people in exchange for favors that in turn degrade them.

The Father is the only white man with a personality in the film; the rest are routine atrocity artists, whippers and rapists and the like. This is a disappointment in a movie that is otherwise so attuned to the subtle differences in personality of its characters.

But in all other respects, "Sankofa" is truly an original and impressive film, particularly as it re-creates almost magically the lure of Africa to a people who have had it stolen from them.

"Sankofa"

Directed by Haile Gerima

Starring Oyafunmike Ogunlano and Mutabaruka

Directed by Haile Gerima

Release by Negod Gwad Productions

Unrated

***

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