The exciting thing about Haile Gerima’s lush, wide-screen folkloric feature about black slavery–independently made and distributed–is its poetic conviction, backed up by a great deal of filmmaking savvy. Born in Ethiopia but based in the U.S., Gerima attended UCLA’s film school around the same time as Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Julie Dash, and Billy Woodbury. I haven’t seen his previous films–which include Harvest 3000 Years, Bush Mama, and Ashes and Embers–but Sankofa (1993) shows that he has a camera style and political vision all his own. A glamorous black model (Oyafunmike Ogunlano) posing for pictures outside an ancient castle in Ghana where slaves were once bought and sold provokes the ire of a self-appointed tribal guardian of this tourist spot, who hurls a curse at her that magically transports her into the role of a slave on a Jamaican plantation, where most of the remainder of the film is set. Beautifully shot and powerfully acted, the depiction of slavery from the vantage point of the slaves as they move toward revolt is rendered mainly in English dialogue, with an interesting score by David J. White that manages to encompass American jazz and blues as well as African elements. It stands to reason that if anything could bridge the radically disparate experiences of being an American black and being an African slave it’s poetry, and Gerima puts it to stirring use. With Alexandra Duah, Nick Medley, Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka, and Ghanaian drummer Ghanaba. Hyde Park.

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