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  • To Journey Imperfectly:Black Cinema Aesthetics and the Filmic Language of Sankofa
  • Allyson Nadia Field (bio)

Until lions have their own historian,tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.

—Akan proverb

The thought of only being a creature of the presentand the past, troubled me, and I longed to have afuture—a future with hope in it.

—Frederick Douglass

Two interrelated broad concerns emerged from the 1980 symposium on Black Cinema Aesthetics and the 1982 volume dedicated to that event: the contemporary state of Black independent filmmaking and the critical appraisal of Black film history. Both concerns were posited as necessarily independent from Hollywood norms of production and mainstream scholarly assessment. They were also interrelated insofar as the volume’s interest in Black film history is in how it informs (or fails to inform due to limitations in scholarship at that time) an understanding of contemporary Black film practices.1 In his essay for Black Cinema Aesthetics, Haile Gerima rhetorically asked “how long can Afro-American artists be travelogue artists, taking white America into the underworld, into the worst negative conceptions of black America which happen to titillate and fascinate white America?”2 Writing his essay while working on Ashes and Embers (US, 1982), Gerima expressed a practical concern about breaking from “decades [End Page 171] of mass media exploitation” that has prescribed a certain view of “Blackness” and conditioned audiences to accept a notion of “authentic realism” that, in Gerima’s view, perpetuates the disenfranchisement of Black Americans.3 Likewise, Gerima decries the emphasis on a white “point of entry” into film: “White distributors and producers continue to say it’s not commercial to do a film about Black people without having a ‘point of entry,’ which means white people.”4 The political stakes of Black filmmaking are located, for Gerima, in the way a film positions its implicit spectator. As such, Gerima is equally concerned with narrative subject and with a critique of the way in which that narrative is told.

A decade later, in a talk given in South Africa at the University of Cape Town’s 1993 conference “Appropriations: New Directions in African Cultural Studies?,” Gerima warned against “academic tourism” in the critical discussion of African cinema.5 For Gerima, scholarly analysis must develop alongside film production and resist accommodation to the dominant social and political language. At that conference, Gerima also screened his fifth feature film, Sankofa (Burkina Faso/Ghana/Germany/US/UK, 1993). With Sankofa, Gerima aimed to subvert the prevalent narrative of slavery by representing nuanced and empowering instances of resistance as a reclaiming of the lineage of African Americans. Yet he was equally concerned with employing cinematic language that resisted the dominant mode of filmic communication: communication of the regressive “plantation school” of thinking.6 With Sankofa, Gerima tells the story of North American slavery, usually presented as an American experience, from the African perspective: both in terms of its narrative and as a struggle for language, the root of which he locates in an African heritage. He does this through formal disruptions in the narrative structure and the use of overlapping multiple diegeses that render the protagonist’s and spectator’s journeys imperfect and (thereby) transformational.

Gerima’s emphasis on the idea of “imperfect cinema” and his call for scholars to reflect his “imperfect” filmmaking journey in their criticism are not without precedent: Gerima self-consciously echoes Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa’s concept of “imperfect cinema,” associating it with the notion of the film experience as journey.7 In contrast to “perfect” cinema, understood as “technically and artistically masterful” cinema that elides ideology through form, this notion of “imperfect” cinema sees the revolutionary potential in anti-illusionist elements of film narrative and form that “show the process of a problem.”8 For Espinosa, film form should be mobilized to address a disaffected audience. He notes, “Imperfect cinema finds a new audience in those who struggle, and it finds its themes in their problems.”9 Gerima takes this notion of imperfection and links it to a critique of cinema as travelogue and a charge against critics as enacting a kind of intellectual tourism.10 In his discourse...


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pp. 171-190
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