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By Sumier Phalake

As I headed over to the Apex museum in downtown Atlanta to watch a movie called Sankofa (1993), written and directed by Haile Gerima from Ethiopa, I didn't really know what to expect. Embarrassingly enough, the museum was a place I didn't even know existed, after having lived for four years in Atlanta. I recently learned that the historic Apex museum is screening a film series called Movies with a Mission, sponsored by Sankofaspirit, a non-profit organization based in Atlanta, dedicated to providing cultural and educational programs and services that focus on Africa and its diaspora.

Movies with a Mission aims to counter the myths and negative images of people of African descent so often portrayed in Hollywood. This February, Movies with a Mission launched its 5th season screening films from Ghana, Kenya, Sudan, South Africa, Canada, Coastal Georgia, Brazil, Jamaica, New Orleans and more.

As I entered the Apex museum and was greeted by the gracious host for the evening, Theresa Noni Charles, founder/director of Movies with a Mission, I felt my expectations rise. The evening began with "spoken word artists who compliment the screening topics of courage, hope, and perservance." These performances, given before the movie started, were beautifully enacted, eye opening, and touching.

Sankofa begins with vivid imagery of an ancient African slave castle, and a self-absorbed Black American fashion model, Mona, on a photo shoot. Soon, a series of events lead her to remember the forgotten life of her ancestor, Shona, a house slave on a plantation. The rest of the movie follows Shona and the other amazing characters that live on this plantation. There is Shongo, who Shona loves; Joe, the head slave 'mulatto' who is perpetually tormented and torn between what seems like his duty to God and treason to his own people and most of all, Nunu, whose amazing spirit carries her through every tragedy that comes her way.

Shona is often subjected to physical and sexual abuse, but is afraid to fight back, for fear of her own life. Shongo is a rebellious slave often willing to take extremes and risk his life to gain freedom, much to Shona's dismay. It's hard not to care for these characters as we watch them spend their daily lives fraught with hardship and peril. Slow at times, and suffering from a script that sometimes tries to take on too much, the movie often betrays the lack of budget and resources that it was made with. Perhaps, its biggest flaw, but a forgivable one, is that it often portrays the white oppressors on the plantation as purely evil and one-dimensional. This perhaps necessary plot device provides the driving point to the movie's finale. However, for me, it was everything else in between that really made the story shine.

Sankofa is a film that deals with slavery in a way that I am not sure any Hollywood production ever has. The film deals with the physical and psychological effects that slavery had, it deals with how religion in some way laid the moral foundation for making slavery acceptable, it deals with internalized racism and self hate, stereotypes, and the suppression of African culture and religion. There is something that will resonate within every person who watches this film, regardless of race, culture or religion.

"Sankofa" is an East African word meaning to go back and remember the past. Director Haile Gerima goes a long way to help reinforce that message.

Movies with a Mission has more screenings coming up, free and open to the public. If the opener was anything to go by, we have many more great films in store for us.

Next Screening:

Women's History Month Screening


The APEX Museum
135 Auburn Avenue

Dialogue/Q&A with filmmaker Adetoro Makinde

Free and Open to the Public

As a Nigerian-American, Bisi has lived her life balancing between the freedom of an American lifestyle and the beliefs of her Yoruba ancestors. On the eve of her wedding, tradition takes over, but it could cost her the man she loves.

While exploring the beauty and betrayals of tradition on African women, this film brings up the question: When raised by "tradition," how does one follow her heart?

For more information, see

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