Director Haile Gerima's film "Sankofa" addresses the psychological effects of slavery by tackling the horrors of slavery head-on. The film's title, "Sankofa," itself is an indication of the film's intent. An Akan word (a language native to Ghana) it translates as "We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward; so we understand why and how we came to be who we are today." The word's symbol is backward looking bird, symbolizing the need to always be reminded of one's origins and one's past in order to go forward. The word is often used as a reminder to remain mindful of how the past has shaped the present, and how it has shaped who we are.
In the case of the effects of slavery and the slave trade -- and many slaves were forcibly abducted from West Africa, where Ghana is located -- the long-term psychological effects on the descendents of slaves remains a powerful force in how many African Americans perceive the world. Central to the film's plot is a successful African American model who, upon visiting Ghana and, specifically, a site once used by slave traders, is cast into mystical world courtesy of an elderly African gentleman named, ironically, Sankofa. Sankofa magically transports the model, Mona, to the American South during the time of slavery. The purpose of this voyage to the past, and to the era of slavery, is to awaken Mona to the price her ancestors paid so that she could live a life of wealth and comfort today. During Mona's (now named Shola) journey into slavery, she is directly confronted with the brutality and dehumanizing treatment to which slaves were subjected for hundreds of years in the land of the free.
"Sankofa" is an entirely psychological enterprise. Mona cannot actually be transported to the past; such is the stuff of science fiction. Only by having the emotional weight of slavery forced upon her is she able come back to the present a whole person, formed more fully by the experience and legacy of slavery. That she was blatantly narcissistic prior to her eye-opening experience and has her character reshaped by her victimization and struggle, along with other slaves, to revolt against slavery and form a new community is the point Gerima less-then-subtly makes with his use of the title and mystical African elder Sankofa. The audience is expected to, and because Gerima has made a very good film, does, react viscerally to the depiction of cruelty portrayed, and to the redemptive power of history reawakened in the person of Mona. In that, "Sankofa" is a very psychological film.