|Texts and Contexts|
My remarks today concern the question of what it means for a film to be a slave narrative. In some ways, the question could be revised to replace slave narrative with the term of more historical and literary accuracy—“neo-slave narrative” which is defined by literary scholar Ashraf H.A. Rushdy as “modern or contemporary fictional works substantially concerned with depicting the experience or the effect of New World slavery.” Rushdy divides neo-slave narratives into 4 distinct forms: historical novels about slavery, palimpsest narratives about the current impact of slavery and the negative consequences of black peoples denial of that heritage, the genealogical narrative typified by Alex Haley and J. California Cooper, and experimental novels that invent a fugitive or manumitted slave as the first person narrator. Haile Gerima’s 1993 film Sankofa combines the second and fourth of Rushdy’s categories; it introduces Shola, a slave woman and first person narrator whose existence comments on slavery’s lasting effect in the 20th century and indicts blacks’ denial of the slave past.
Gerima’s 1993 film clearly is more aligned with the neo-slave narrative tradition. Its newness can be simply and directly attributed to its form: the cinema. The invention of which did not emerge until after emancipation. However, the film, both on a textual and meta-textual level, exhibit, even as it revises, specific characteristics of the ante-bellum slave narrative. The cinematic language and character of Sankofa as well as the non-traditional means of its production and distribution recall several of the slave narrative conventions; such as framing or authenticating documents, loss of innocence, punishment factor, resistance motif, life-in-the-quarters, intentional ambiguity, phases of bondage.
In the time that follows, I will focus on the film’s cinematic interpretation of two slave narrative conventions: the authenticating documents and the punishment factor. First a brief explanation: authenticating documents are brief endorsements of slave narratives usually written by white abolitionists. These texts are like letters of introduction to the white readers that frame the narrative by verifying the author’s identity and veracity. The punishment factor is the representation of physical abuse and torture of slaves by white masters. The first scene I’d like to show is the opening sequence from the film. After the opening credits, a clarion call or incantation follows resurrecting “Spirits of the Dead.” [FILM CLIP No. One: opening sequence.] I suggest that this opening privileges the African Diasporic condition. The sound, relentless, insistent, and ritualistic drums and the call of the drummer underpins the dominant narrative of reclamation. The tension between the swirling camera-work and the stillness of the carved Sankofa bird and the bronze statue of the man pulling at the chains about his neck, suggest the conflation of past and present. The move from this setting to the fields of sugar cane and eventually the layered images of Mona listening to the Sankofa drummer present a tableau that is at once prologue and authenticating documentation. This virtual roll call of the African slave trades also emphasizes the intentionality of the film’s setting. Although the film was shot at several locations Jamaica, Louisiana, and Ghana, the actual plantation setting refuses to be firmly located in any specific historic or geographic place. This ambiguity has frustrated at least one critic who interprets this as a sign of Gerima’s ahistoricity. I, however, consider the lack of concretization, not as a denial of Diaporic specificity, but as an attribute of its powerful influence. So, the opening sequence then is a self-authenticating gesture that frames a narrative film that attempts to cinematographically recreate and reinvigorate the slave past.
Another aspect of the slave narrative tradition that Gerima invokes and recreates is the punishment factor. The role/purpose of physical violence is one of the most provocative elements in slave narrative scholarship. Though seen by many as a way to establish the grim reality of enslavement, verify the depravity of white slaveholders, and reinforce male slave authority and independence; we must also consider Deborah McDowell’s 1 contention that the ubiquitous image of black women being stripped, bound, then beaten made the slave narrative the pornography of their day. Significantly, Saidiya Hartman refused to include the famous Frederick Douglass’s “Aunt Hester beating scene” in her excellent book Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in 19th Century America for fear of reinscribing the speculative conditions that McDowell identifies.
The cinema, however, is rooted in spectacle as the visual component is the defining element. I want to show two clips here that exemplify the nuance with which Gerima attempts to use cinematic language to render slavery. The first is the space before the actual whipping. The white overseer is trying to get one of the head-slaves, Noble Ali or Joe, to beat the runaways. [FILM CLIP No. Two: scene just before whipping.] The symbolic arrangement of the three scaffolds suggests Christ’s crucifixion. The close-up shots of the two men as they attempt to evade, stall and delay the whipping show the black performance of masking and tricksterism literally in the face of white dominance. In the next clip, we see that Gerima’s treatment of the whipping scenes is not the usual slave narrative fare. I want to use Frederick Douglass to contextualize the typical representation. In the first chapter of his famous narrative, he passes through the blood-stained gate of slavery when he witnesses his Aunt Hester’s beating. After stripping her from the waist up, “He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes” Douglass continues “and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor.”
Though the physical arrangement is similar, Gerima revises this scene. We see Kuta, a pregnant run away, not as a helpless victim but as a rebel whose gaze challenges her oppression until the moment of her death. [FILM CLIP No. 3: whipping scene.] This scene, in its wide angle vision that emphasizes the stalking, pacing overseer and the close-up shots that shift between Joe the counting slave, Noble Ali the beating slave, Kuta the beaten slave, and the other slave witnesses suggests that Gerima is attempting in cinematic language to render the multifaceted trauma of slavery. Now whether his attempt to transmit the “real” of slavery to audiences is successful remains to be seen. Still, what I find remarkable is the ability show grief, anger, fear, and resistance in one moment.
To sum up is impossible because in so many ways I am at the very beginning. For my book project, I read this film an attempt to invest the history of slavery with literal meanings and consequences. The film’s distribution route recalls Harriet Jacobs’ work to get her narrative published, but in addition to this specific meta-level coincidence, the film also connects with the both slave narrative and neo-slave narratives in its insistence on the reality of slavery and the urgency to erode America’s carefully and diligently constructed apathy regarding it.
1. See especially, McDowell’s essay “In the First Place: Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Narrative Tradition” in Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass. William L. Andrews, ed. G.K. Hall: Boston, 1991.
|TEI markup by Nicole Huffman|