“The more I looked at Pan-Africanism, the more I saw the slave trade as the crux in any Pan-African process,” says local filmmaker Shirikiana Aina. “If you are looking for a link back together, you have to be aware of a broken link…where that broken link occurred in the first place.”
Aina, who co-produced her husband Haile Gerima’s Sankofa, searches for the source of those broken links in her own project, Through the Door of No Return. Just as “sankofa” means going back in order to go forward, Aina returns to both her African and African-American roots to make peace with the past.
As the film begins, Aina reflects on the ancestry she knowsthat of her sharecropper father who “escaped” to Detroit in search of a better life, and who died of malaria shortly after traveling to Africa with the Pan-African Congress. The film then turns to her African ancestry, which remains unknown, as she traces her father’s trip to Ghana, and to the Elmina Slave Fort, a dungeon where slaves were kept before boarding ships to the New World.
“I began asking certain questions….’Do they remember us? Should they remember us? Can I find our memory here?’” says Aina. “This is one of the reasons that much of the film was shot at night. I sort of saw myself looking in the dark for a memory.”
Through the Door of No Return is not an updated version of Roots. The film raises more questions than it finds answers for. Still, we see that for Aina and, by extension, black Americans in general, slavery and its effects are not distant memories of the past but part of a family legacy still fresh in the mind.
Although the film succeeds in personalizing the desire to link oneself with the past, in other areas it falls short. Even at 80 minutes, it loses momentum. Still shots are held too long, and many of the talking-head interviews with black Americans touring the dungeon seem redundant. If the film had been edited as a television-length documentary rather than a feature film, we would have been spared the superfluous scenes and left with the many more powerful moments.
The horrors of slavery cannot be dramatized enough, but filmmakers face a difficult task in representing the truth without being heavy-handed. Aina’s film turns melodramatic at times, as when we hear a long sequence of sound-effect screams inside the dungeon. But there are simpler moments that convey the impact of slavery more successfully.
A diagram of a slave ship is the focus of one of the film’s most powerful scenes. Though the drawing, which shows Africans stacked on top of each other in the ship’s holding cells, isn’t new, Aina’s narration adds new depth when she tells us that the slavers calculated the deaths of half the slaves into their profits. Later, when the camera descends into the dungeon, the place becomes all the more real.
A scene at a festival in which an African woman teaches a black American woman the right way to do a certain dance move speaks volumes. It takes the American a minute to learn the step, but when the two finally move in sync, it’s as if long-lost sisters have finally been reunited.
Throughout the film, we see the intense need for recognition felt by so many black Americans. Aina uses the analogy of an adopted child who searches for her birth parents. Though she doesn’t mention it in the film, it is significant that Aina is a light-skinned black whose hair is more Caucasian than African in texture. When one Ghanaian elder points to Aina, who is offscreen, and identifies her as being of African descent, you can sense the director’s relief and gratitude.
The film reveals a great deal about the psyche of middle-class black Americans, examining “the rage” described by journalist/author Ellis Cose. “See, this is real. This isn’t something that is a personal problem,” one of the African-Americans says, describing his anger. “This is true, something in history.” For visitors, the castle stands as a monument to a history whose evils have traditionally been downplayed and whitewashed.
“You’d be hard pressed to show me one country that didn’t in some way have a connection to slavery. D.C. has its own incredible history that is again hidden, is secret,” says Aina. “There are places on Pennsylvania Avenue where they used to corral us before shipping us off to Maryland and Virginia.”
It is this “us” of whom Aina speaks that drives the film. When, inside the dungeon, Aina’s narration tells of the “screams and wails devoured by these walls” and the stench that remains, it is as a survivor more than an observer.
The “door of no return” is a small opening in the castle. From the outside, it’s a small, dark slit in a huge white expanse. Arriving at the opening, Aina describes her mixed emotions. At first she wants to leave, then to linger. “I want to lay my cheek against the wall, skin to skin, so that those people who passed through here can feel me. So I can feel them…their pulse, their fear, their strength.”
Like Sankofa, Through the Door of No Return is an “important” film in that it addresses issues not often treated on film, and this importance will no doubt allow many to overlook its flaws. It addresses the fact that black Americans are descendants of both the slaves and the sellers. And it focuses a great deal on the relationship of black women to Africa.
“I think the best the film can do is provoke discussion,” says Aina, whose next big project will be a baby due next month. “I think a personal journey is a very valid way of initiating a collective discussion. My personal journey was also a very collective journey for black people all around the world, because symbolically we all came through that same door.”Holly Bass