Ethiopian-born filmmaker Haile Gerima was a leader in the LA Rebellion film movement. The movement, which lasted from the late ‘60’s to the late ‘80s, consisted of UCLA Film School graduates who were creating distinctly Black cinema that was unique from dominant Hollywood styles at the time.
Gerima’s seminal work “Sankofa” tells the story of an African-American model, Mona, who goes to Ghana for a shoot in a castle that historically functioned as a dungeon where enslaved people were held during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Mona is then transported back in time “to live the life of her ancestors” as an enslaved person. The film was very well-received by critics and earned Gerima the Grand Prize at the African Cinema Festival and a place on a list of “the most essential films in the history of world cinema” published by Harvard University film professors.
The title borrows from the Ghanaian Twi language, Sankofa translating to “go back and get it.” The phrase is often symbolized by a bird moving forward, but constantly checking backwards. The symbol is popular throughout the diaspora, but is most often found in traditional art of the Akan people of Ghana. The larger meaning that Sankofa represents is that one must know their past in order to understand the present and move into the future. The message is seeing a particular rebirth in recent times, especially with Beyoncé’s recent film “Black is King” heavily exploring themes of connecting future and past. Alton Mason’s film “Rise in Light” and Ghana’s 2019 “Year of Return” also explore the idea of Sankofa through different lenses.
Gerima, who is a Professor of Film at Howard University, opened a Washington D.C. bookstore with his wife Shirikiana Gerima, who is a filmmaker herself, also named Sankofa. The independent bookstore, which is popular in the Howard University community, considers itself a “sanctuary for Pan-African culture ... that hopes to be a place where thoughtful consideration of the past and future can take place via books, films, and programming particularly generated by and about people of African Descent.” The Sankofa bookstore is a member of recording artist Noname’s book club which “highlights books that speak on human conditions in critical and original ways.”
Sankofa Bookstore and Cafe, captured by Michael Mikail