“Sankofa” didn’t receive distribution upon its initial release. Instead, Gerima self-distributed the film to independent cinemas across the country, and it’s not been widely seen since then. Ava DuVernay’s Array via Netflix is now re-releasing a 4k restoration of the film, and the result is a visually striking unearthing of an important chapter in world cinema.
Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano), the film’s protagonist, is a present-day African-American model sporting a leopard print bathing suit and orange Tina Turner inspired hair, working a photoshoot on a Ghana beach in the shadows of Cape Coast Castle. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade the castle was the lost stop before Africans confronted the further horror of traveling to America. It was “the point of no return.” In the opening scenes, Gerima’s lens peers over the now-antique cannons that line the white-sand walls, looking toward the tangerine sun-soaked beaches below, wherein Ghanians laugh, play, and prepare to fish.
Gerima’s “Sankofa” is an invocation not just to African ancestors, but also the present-day viewer. It calls to attention how history exists in the present, how the spirits of the long-gone can still affect today. Consider its final scene: the camera panning over an assemblage of Africans, all colorfully dressed, including Mona, sitting on the steps of the castle, staring out toward the sea. It is a calling to those souls. Likewise, the legacy, beauty, and humanist sensibilities contained within “Sankofa” still call to us today.
Now playing on Netflix.