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Memories of my childhood buzz with the sounds of my mother’s voice, calling me in her mother’s tongue. Adwoa, she cried from the bedroom when she wanted to summon me. Maame adwoa, she cooed when I, distraught for one reason or another, needed comforting. Adowa, she warned, usually in public, when she sensed mischief on the horizon.
I rarely encounter my mother’s tongue — I call it Twi, others Akan — in public, but when I do, it always comes as a surprise. I catch individual words or fragments of conversations as one would fireflies on a muggy summer night. Awuarde comes to me while running for the train; εte sεn while standing at a bus stop, chale and its attendant chuckle while waiting for a light to change. Sometimes I’ll read it in the pages of a book or hear it in a film, and those experiences almost always pull me back to my past.
Haile Gerima’s Sankofa, which has received a 4K digital restoration and can now be streamed on Netflix thanks to a partnership between the U.S.-based Gerima’s Mypheduh Films and Ava DuVernay’s Array, is a story partially told in my mother’s tongue. Its significance in movie history and the director’s influence on Black filmmaking cannot be overstated, for the film, an epic narrative of a slave revolt, was conceived and birthed under challenging circumstances. These conditions included the long shadow cast by colonialism, a racist industry hostile to meaningful stories about Black people, and the particular struggles an independent Black filmmaker faced in securing funding (money, of course, is always a problem) and distribution.
Audacious in his vision and determined in his pursuit, Gerima overcame these obstacles. After Sankofa bowed as an official selection of the 1993 Berlin and AFI festivals, he and his wife and Mypheduh co-founder, Shirikiana Aina, brought the film to independent theaters in Black communities across the United States. They found a ravenous audience.
Since its limited release 28 years ago, Sankofa has been celebrated across the diaspora for its hypnotic storytelling, its concern with moral and spiritual growth, and especially its representation of slavery — not as a willfully accepted condition but as a system met with constant defiance. The occasion of the rerelease means that audiences — especially Black people — can encounter his work anew or for the first time.
Sankofa’s marvels range from Gerima’s meticulous editing style and electrifying use of music to his liberating nonlinear storytelling techniques. But I find myself most consistently drawn to the film’s fluid embrace of language, what it reveals about rebellion and how it deepens our understanding of Gerima’s characters.
The film opens with an incantation, in English, calling for the spirits of the dead to tell their stories, and then swiftly moves to a man (Kofi Ghanaba) beating a drum and commanding, in Akan (the most widely spoken language in Ghana), for all people to listen. It’s against this backdrop — drums, urgent calls — that we meet Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano), a vain Black model who has come to Ghana’s coast for a photoshoot. Wearing a tiger print swimsuit and a fiery orange wig, she poses in the sand for her white photographer (Chrispan Rigby), whose words feel violent. “This is how I like it, Mona,” he says. “That’s great, Mona. More sex, Mona,” and “Let the camera do it to you, Mona.” This cacophony of sounds, encouraging Mona’s passivity, culminates in a confrontation between Mona and the old priest (the one beating the drums at the film’s beginning), who calls himself Sankofa and claims to speak to the spirits.
Their interaction is meant to serve as a wake-up call, an intervention urging Mona to become more active. The Akan word “Sankofa” translates roughly to “Go back and retrieve what you’ve left behind.” Most often used in the context of memories and the past, it’s an empowering, Pan-African reminder to never forget where you came from, and to excavate history not for exploitation, but for guidance.
But Mona does not heed the warning. She ends up trapped in a dungeon of what looks like Elmina Castle, one of the slave forts dotting Ghana’s coast. A distressed Mona shrieks for help and, when the doors open, the world outside isn’t one she recognizes. White enslavers, who think she’s trying to escape, brand her with a hot iron. As the screen goes black, Mona yells, “Stop, I’m not an African! Don’t you recognize me? I’m Mona, I’m an American.” It’s a futile attempt to claim an identity that will not save her.
The next time we encounter Mona, she is Shola, a house slave on a sugar plantation somewhere in the West Indies. Sankofa is primarily the story of how Mona/Shola becomes a more realized individual, how her relationships with the plantation’s field slaves — specifically Shango (Mutabaruka) and Nunu (Alexandra Duah) — push her to understand the layers of her oppression and to fight for her own liberation.
Shango and Nunu are the most self-actualized individuals on the plantation. They also happen to be the two people whose use of language differs most from the others’: They speak in metaphors, their lessons wrapped tightly in stories inherited from their homelands. Shango is the most noticeably Caribbean, his thick dialect placing him somewhere in that region’s constellation of islands. In a 2008 interview in the Journal of Black Studies, Gerima talked about Sankofa’s screenplay, saying that once the actors “found the essence” of their characters, he instructed them “to give it their identity.” For Shango, a revolutionary committed to freeing himself and others, that meant a dialect. “Shango,” Gerima said in that interview, “translated it all into the Caribbean dialect that he wanted.”
The freedom to evolve within a performance is most evident in Nunu, who shifts between Akan and English with dexterity. The stories she shares with the other slaves are told in English, yet the prayers she recites for protection are in Akan. In one particularly moving scene, Nunu prays over Kuta (Alditz McKenzie), a pregnant woman who has been whipped to death, in what another enslaved person terms Nunu’s “country tongue.” The emotional incantation, accompanied by tears and desperate body language, asks for guidance as she delivers Kuta’s baby.
Nunu slips into Akan when she needs an armor, whether that manifests as a prayer or biting humor. Duah milks her mother tongue for all it has, including the slight tonal differentiations that turn insults into jokes, adding levity where it might seem discordant. Nunu’s conversations with her half-white son, Joe (Nick Medley), who, as a devout head slave, has committed his life to worshipping both the white man and his God, are some of the film’ most intriguing exchanges. Joe does not speak Akan, nor does he seem to understand it, and this division reflects both the aching pain of strained maternal bonds and the sting of cultural dislocation. When he interacts with his mother, they speak over each other, their chosen languages creating a sonic clash. While she seems to understand him, he can never hear her. And what he does not hear, he does not understand.
Like Joe, Mona does not initially understand the words of the Sankofa man, meeting his imperatives with blank stares. It takes a dramatic and sudden shift to reorient her. Even then, she must listen harder — to Shango, to Nunu — in order to hear the voices of her past.
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