Black filmgoers see 'Sankofa' again and again

March 14, 1994|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff Writer

Baruti Taylor has seen the movie four times. Three people urged Kathy Newson to see the movie. She did, loved it and is encouraging others to go. Dawn Jones was assigned the movie for a college history course; now she wants to see it again with all her sorority sisters.

The movie is "Sankofa." It recounts the lives of slaves, from the viewpoint of one woman who travels back in time to an American sugar plantation, where she is a house slave.

"Sankofa" has become the hot movie in Baltimore's African-American community. But this low-budget -- by Hollywood standards -- movie's popularity is not due to paid advertising in local media. It's strictly word of mouth that's made it the must-see film of the season.

"I saw it and thought it was wonderful. I have been telling everyone about it," says Iris Brown, who works in the cardiology department at Bon Secours Hospital.

The movie is packing them in at Westview Cinemas, the only theater at which "Sankofa" is playing. It was originally booked for two weeks but now has been held over "indefinitely," says Rashida Forman-Bey, who is handling group ticket sales at Westview.

The movie "cast black people in a light that is real, as opposed to a caricature," says Mr. Taylor, a 42-year-old government administrator. "Most people are so uninformed with our own story, so used to seeing caricatures. And because this story is done so well, therein lies the appeal."

Hollywood wasn't interested

Although "Sankofa" has won film awards on the international circuit, Hollywood still wasn't interested in it, says Haile Gerima, who produced the movie with his wife, Shirikiana Aina.

It took more than 10 years for the couple to get the $1 million they needed to make the movie. Financial help came from the African countries of Ghana and Burkina Faso, the National Endowment for the Arts and German and English television stations.

And now Hollywood has come calling. But Mr. Gerima says he doesn't want them.

"I am not interested now that they want to distribute it," says Mr. Gerima, who teaches film at Howard University and produced, wrote, directed and edited "Sankofa." "They don't want to advertise it. They didn't want to push it. Why should we enrich them? What is important to me is that we are tapping into the community."

So Mr. Gerima and Ms. Aina will retain control over the movie, although it's not easy. "We are not business people," he explains.

He is educating himself in business practices and using the movie to instruct the community in another way. Mr. Gerima speaks to audiences after some showings "to educate the people and explain to them the distribution problem, that no one wanted it," he says.

"Sankofa" has played in Washington and Boston and is scheduled to open in New York in April. Mr. Gerima hopes to take the movie to Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles.

Even though it's playing to packed houses in Baltimore, Mr. Gerima says it still isn't easy to convince theater owners to book the movie.

"We would like to re-open it in D.C., but we are having a problem finding a theater that will rent it to us," he says.

So far, profits from the movie are going toward reducing debts the couple incurred making the film. "The money is paying off all our loans," he says. In addition, he's using proceeds to make three additional prints of the movie.

Judging by reaction in Baltimore, more prints would be useful.

It is the movie's realistic and dignified recounting of the slave trade as told through the eyes of black people that grabs the imagination of Ms. Jones, a 22-year-old senior at Coppin State College.

The slaves, who exhibit a wide range of emotions, are shown as loving and strong or weak and fallible -- as human beings instead of props.

"The story of African-Americans told through Africans is something we just don't get to see," says Ms. Jones. "We are always shown our history through the eyes of Europeans. And the movie was not sugar-coated."

'It's so realistic'

It is still not an easy movie to see, says Iris Brown. "It's so realistic, it makes you feel the pain. It's like you were actually there," she says.

Kathy Newson loved the movie's non-stereotypical view of slaves. "Even though the plot was pretty basic, the way it was presented was different. It wasn't stereotypes. And even though there were some 'Uncle Tom' characters, it still gave you an insight into what causes people to act in different ways, and the price people had to pay for standing up to things."

For Yvonne White, the movie elicited mixed feelings.

"I'm of two minds. It was a beautiful movie, but I thought, 'What now?' This is such a sore spot for us. I don't need a steady dose of this," says Ms. White, who nonetheless would recommend that others see the film.

Akilah Taylor, who has seen "Sankofa" twice, found affirmation and strength in the movie.

"Just like in the movie, this is what it said to me, 'Even though they may have enslaved my body, they would never enslave my mind.' "

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