'Sankofa' Rises Up to Tell the Story

April 12, 1994|By GREGORY P. KANE

At one of the 10 movie theaters at the Westview Cinemas, a full house for the 4:30 p.m. show leaves to make way for a full house for the 7 p.m. show. This has been going on for over a month now, and the film at this particular theater doesn't even have a distributor. The only advertising it has received has been by word of mouth.

The film is called ''Sankofa.'' It is a tale of the brutality of African enslavement in the Western hemisphere and how Africans resisted it. ''Sankofa'' is an Akan word -- from the people who inhabit what is today the African country of Ghana -- that means to return to the past to recoup what you've lost and then move forward. It was directed and written by Haile Gerima -- who teaches filmmaking at Howard University -- and shot on location in Jamaica and at Cape Castle in Ghana.

''Sankofa'' is not a perfect film by any means. I was left confused about exactly where the slave plantation depicted in the movie was supposed to be. The United States? The West Indies? Latin America? Mr. Gerima doesn't make it clear, but he can be forgiven for that. He has much history to tell in this film and only a little over two hours to tell it. My guess is that he probably tried to combine the experiences of black people in all these places into one film. Indeed, at the very beginning of ''Sankofa,'' spirits of slaves from the swamps of Florida, Cuba, Suriname, South Carolina and other places are urged to ''rise up and tell your story.''

And Mr. Gerima tells their story well, for the most part. He gives quite a different view of slavery than that provided in ''Gone With The Wind'' -- the film to which all too many white Americans still genuflect and which depicts slaves as fretting over the welfare of Miss Scarlett and Massa Rhett. It is also different from that presented in the miniseries ''Roots,'' in which slaves passively receive abuse for centuries and then beg to be integrated into the American society.

For perhaps the first time in an American film the audience is informed about those blacks known as ''maroons,'' Africans who didn't come to the New World to integrate into the great American democratic experience but who took to the bush the minute they arrived and started their own communities.

Maroons didn't beg. They built. They built even as they resisted attempts to re-enslave them. If Mr. Gerima's film has any major flaw, it may be that he didn't give enough details about how these ingenious Africans managed to survive against such odds.

Some maroons formed sophisticated states that lasted for decades. The most famous is the Palmares state in Brazil. Slaves grew their own food, forged their own weapons using techniques for processing iron that they brought with them from Africa and resisted Portuguese attempts to defeat them for nearly a century.

Other maroons were able to militarily resist white aggression so well that the slaveholders were forced to make treaties with them. Maroon communities still exist in Jamaica and Suriname today.

Some maroon communities became self-sufficient. Historian William Loren Katz writes that ''To the surprise of Europeans, many maroon colonies became successful, independent farming communities. In the 18th century Captain John Stedman, leading Dutch troops against maroons in the Guianas, wrote that maroon foods were superior to European products and in great supply. . . . Some colonies became a vital part of economic life. Men and women ventured out to exchange their farm produce for valuable guns and ammunition, and sometimes gold and jewelry.''

The most famous maroons in the United States were probably those who settled with the Seminole Indians in Florida. The ''Seminole Wars'' the U.S. government fought were to recapture slaves and to prevent Florida being used as a base for runaway slaves, some historians believe.

Don't expect that information to be found in your standard U.S. history book. When the Seminole Wars are mentioned, black participation in it is hardly mentioned at all. One soldier who had the misfortune to tackle this feisty band of Africans and Indians in battle reported that the blacks were the Indians' ''best fighters.''

The Africans ''transplanted a rice cultivation method practiced in Senegambia and Sierra Leone'' and Indians ''may have depended upon African farmers for their survival,'' writes historian William Loren Katz, who also noted that blacks served the Seminoles as advisers and interpreters.

Haile Gerima bemoaned the fact that no major Hollywood studio would help him distribute ''Sankofa,'' but he needn't worry. Somewhere I suspect the spirits of departed maroons are smiling on his independent effort.

Gregory P. Kane is a Sun reporter.

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