The Black Diaspora in Film. Finding Yourself in "Sankofa"

Essay, 2005

13 Pages, Grade: 2.0


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Haile Gerima and his Motives for Sankofa

3 Mona/Shola
3.1 Assimilated Mona
3.2 Mona becomes Shola
3.3 Assimilated Shola
3.4 Realization and Change
3.5 Reborn Mona

4 Joe
4.1 Assimilated Joe
4.2 Manipulated Christian
4.3 Discovering his Roots

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

The title of the movie Sankofa, directed by Haile Gerima in 1993, has been carefully chosen. Sankofa is a word from the Akan people of Ghana for a special, mythological bird, which turns its head back to hold the egg upon its back.1 Thus, by taking care of its egg, the future generation is ensured. The Sankofa bird has become a symbol in Ghana and other parts of west Africa which stands for the concept that one has to look back, rediscover and reclaim the past in order to face the future and move forward.

Gerima variously integrated this concept in his movie both in the outer plot, i.e. Mona’s realization of her roots in the present, and the inner plot, i.e. within her spiritual journey to the past, especially by means of Mona’s alter ego Shola and the character of Joe, who both have to undergo intensive change until they finally find and realize their true self.

So, in this essay, I will first give some background information on Haile Gerima and his motives for making a movie like Sankofa, as far as it is germane to the further theses. Then, I will focus on the characters of Mona, which involves her alter ego Shola, and Joe. I will outline how the Sankofa concept applies to their realization of their true self by means of having an in-depth look at both reasons and development of their change. How and why did the White people try to prevent them from realizing their true self and how were they able to see it in the end despite all the manipulation?

In a conclusion I will point out common and differing features of their change, as well as its effect upon themselves.

2 Haile Gerima and his Motives for Sankofa

Haile Gerima was born in Ethiopia as the fourth of ten children of a writer and a teacher. As a child, he already performed in his fathers theater group, which frequently presented historical drama. In 1967, he came to the United States to study at Chicago’s Goodman School of Drama. In the U.S. he saw many other people who looked like him and he actually wondered where they all came from. Back then he was 21 years old and had never before heard about the African slave trade, or the Maafa, the African Holocaust. It was not taught in Ethiopian schools and he was shocked that this whole knowledge of slavery, and consequently of his own past, had been denied to him. Even in the U.S. it was, as he said, “very, very covered up, and you have to dig to go underneath to find what has taken place. Everybody has collaborated to cover up an African Holocaust.”2 While the reasons for white people to repress memory of these issues are more obvious, namely to hide the black mark on their ancestors’ and therefore their own historical record, the reasons for black people are somewhat different and might be explained by a historical amnesia: “Amnesia results from the occurrence of tragic events, such as shock, causing total or partial loss of memory. People resulting from amnesia can also be frightened by things that remind them of their past.”3 As Vernellia Randall, professor of law at the University of Dayton, puts it, "African-Americans have no connection to their history, no connection to their ties, even to their religion. Maybe it's like a person with amnesia. They may have a life now and know their immediate history, but there's a blank spot in their mind they can't access. That's what it's like hitting that brick wall where our cultural history should be."4 Gerima’s aim is to smash this brick wall, to provide African Americans with the “weapon of history”5 and make them think about how they became what they are. Thus, in accordance with the Sankofa concept, Gerima’s focus of interest is in the present, where still to many Monas live in denial of their roots, either consciously or because they are simply unaware of them.

Gerima’s approach is very different from mainstream Hollywood movies, these industry-made movies, Gerima says, “will forever be compromised in ways that betray our history and identities.”6 His approach, which was described as “too black” by American distributors, forced him to market the movie on his own.7 But what makes the movie too black? Being shallow, one could just say there is no white lead character. Well it is that, but we have to think this thought further to realize what is so remarkable about Gerima’s movie and the distributors’ comment. Unlike Hollywood movies, Sankofa does neither need white outsider heroes nor Abraham Lincoln’s to initiate the spark of freedom for the slaves: “Whites wrote a history of Whites having freed Black people, which makes Black people people who never freed themselves.”8 In Sankofa it is inside themselves, they realize who they are, what is important to them and consequently aspire their freedom and tackle the challenge. Slavery could not cut the umbilical cord that connected the slaves, either directly or through agents like Nunu and Shango, spiritually to Africa and an aspired existence as free people.

3 Mona/Shola

3.1 Assimilated Mona

In the beginning of Sankofa, we are introduced to the main character of the American model Mona, who has come to Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, obviously as a part of a photo shooting. Thus, it was rather coincidence than own impetus or curiosity that brought her here and, consequently, she is quite unaware of how special this place is.

Cape Coast was one of the largest trading forts on the western coast of Africa. From the 15th to the 19th century people were caught inland and brought to these slave castles, where there were kept sometimes up to one year. When there were enough prisoners to fill a boat, they were traded for cowrie shells, iron bars, guns, knives, silk etc. and were then dispersed as slaves throughout the so-called new world.9

Mona is first seen outside Cape Coast on the beach, posing for an American white photographer, she appears very assimilated, wearing a big blonde whig and a lascivious swimsuit, she is remarkably close to common European or white American standards. She does not think much about it, she laughs while she is posing and willingly obeys all orders of the photographer although one might well see it as a form of subjugation, when Mona is lying on the ground and gets orders like “more sex, Mona”. Mona identifies herself very much with the modern white world, so when Sankofa, the self-appointed guardian of Cape Coast Castle, appears and tells her (in his African mother tongue) to go back where she belongs, she is frightened by him and hides behind the photographer, where she thinks herself save. Mona acts like she lives in a different world and considers Sankofa a dangerous savage. Of course, Sankofa’s order does not mean that Mona is to leave the castle but clearly foreshadows Mona’s discovery of her African roots, he considers it a shocking profanation of this sacred ground, when Mona poses between the canons of the castle, completely ignorant of the horrible crimes that had been committed at this very place. Mona hears a guide explaining who Sankofa is and, slightly interested, follows the tour with some distance.

3.2 Mona becomes Shola

The guide’s description of the slaves’ suffering obviously makes impression on Mona and initiates her mental journey. Standing in a dungeon, the door slams and she sees chained black people around her. Just like with Sankofa, she is bewildered again. She is afraid of the people in the dungeon and backs up trying to escape. It is remarkable that she does not talk to the Black people in the dungeon at all but rather tries to seek help from the white people who appear. Accordingly she shouts, “I’m not an African, I’m an American. I’m not a slave.” It is only the others who are slaves or Africans, as for her, all this is a mistake and has got nothing at all to do with her. Her protestations “highlight the perverse logic of slavery which renders every black person an African and every African a slave.”10 Stripped and branded by the Whites, the scene fades and a flying bird is shown, which, according to African believes, is a symbol for passage and transition, this time it marks the journey of Mona’s soul to the time of her ancestors’ suffering. We see Mona and hear her voice over, but she states that she is a slave on the Lafayette Plantation called Shola. By this spiritual transition, which defies the constraints of time, Mona’s learning experience begins and we are introduced to her alter ego.

3.3 Assimilated Shola

While Mona is able to live in a state of denial or ignorance, Shola does not have this privilege, she actually is a slave and she is forced to live with this situation every day of her life, she cannot deny it. Nevertheless, Shola undergoes clear change in terms of her way of thinking in the course of the movie. At first, in her present situation, though she may not be content, she has accepted her way of life. She says, “I’m Shola, I’m a house slave on the Lafayette Plantation. […] If you was born a slave like me, it was easier to accept things like they were. […] I was trained to serve the Lafayettes…” Part of this training was christianization, which considerably assisted in achieving the big aim of the slave owners, the creation of ‘happy slaves’.11 Of course, this aim was not entirely attainable in the end, but temporarily it saved them much trouble. Shola, for example, does hardly have any rebellious spirit in the beginning, which, in contrast to her, her love Shango is full of. But Shango is a field slave and has to endure a very hard life, while Shola, though being a slave, is at least provided with better food and shelter.


1 Cf.; 14.08.2005.

2; 10.08.2005.

3; 06.02.2005.

4 .html; 14.08.2005.

5 Pamela Woolford. “Filming Slavery: A Conversation with Haile Gerima.“Transition 64 (New Series 1994), 100.

6; 10.08.2005.

7 cf. Woolford, 103.

8 Woolford, 93.

9 Cf.; 10.08.2005.

10 Ruth Mayer. Commemorating Slavery: Frederick Douglass, Haile Gerima, and the Cultural Memory of Slavery. Cologne, year of publication unknown, 2.

11 Cf. Woolford, 93.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Black Diaspora in Film. Finding Yourself in "Sankofa"
University of Heidelberg
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black, diaspora, film, finding, yourself, sankofa
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Rene Fassbender (Author), 2005, The Black Diaspora in Film. Finding Yourself in "Sankofa", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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