Decades before Sankofa Video, Books and Café was a brick-and-mortar location in 1997, the store’s legendary filmmaking founders Haile and Shirikiana Gerima worked with Howard University students to bring Black film to the streets of D.C. through pop-up screenings around the city.
It would soon become part of their strategy for releasing their own independent films, and part of the legacy of Sankofa’s expansion of access to Black film and literature.
Nestled on Georgia Avenue across the street from Howard, the café bears the title of the couple’s famed movie “Sankofa,” which means “going back to our past to go forward,” and offers sandwiches named after African and African-American filmmakers as well as opportunities to view films from such directors.
“Washington was where you could really experiment with a coherent Black culture, and there were audiences,” Haile said of the days before Sankofa served as a base for previewing Black film.
The store has hosted the likes of Stevie Wonder, held events by award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates and was even the site of an impromptu performance by Solange during President Donald Trump’s inauguration, though the event was in protest of his presidency.
Alongside being a hub for Black culture, Sankofa also serves as the headquarters for Haile and Shirikiana’s fiercely independent filmmaking endeavors.
In 1982, the couple and Haile’s sister, Selome Gerima, established Mypheduh Films in the basement of their home to manage the distribution of their work. Mypheduh Films also operates alongside their production company, Negod Gwad Productions, both of which now are run out of the Sankofa basement.
To date they have produced more than a dozen films. But it hasn’t been easy.
It took more than decade to secure the funding for “Sankofa,” which follows the journey of Mona, a Black American model on a fashion shoot at former slave castles in Africa who comes to grips with her ancestral past after being transported back in time to experience the physical and mental abuses of slavery.
“Who’s going to fund a film about slavery where you find the Black people resisting slavery and putting down the basis of resistance that occurred to make slavery finally end?” Shirikiana said. “We found that nobody wants to fund that.”
All their films explore African or African-American narratives, as they said mainstream films often miss the mark when exploring Black history.
Haile said most mainstream films about Black history “treat Black people like superhuman beings who withstood and took all the brunts of slavery, but the range of emotional stages people went through is not known.”
“I have no interest in making flimsy films about Black people who are so superhuman that it discourages my children from realizing that they too could become Malcolm X,” he said. “The financing is the continued problem for Black filmmakers like us who do not allow the supervision nor the management of our stories by other people.”
They launched their own campaign to fund “Sankofa” in the mid-1980s. Small grants and individuals willing to work for small compensation helped to move the film along until they successfully secured alliances and funding from the governments of Ghana and Burkina Faso.
“[‘Sankofa’] got us into the cauldron of needing more money, being able to start [other films] and looking for completion funds once it’s started,” Shirkiana said. “The level of independence that ‘Sankofa’ was able to get for us launched the next two films, ‘Through the Door of No Return’ and ‘Adwa.’”
She has just recently finished a film she began in the mid-’90s, and Haile has two films in production.
Shirikiana’s most recent film, “Footprints of Pan Africanism,” a documentary which explores the road to African independence, will premiere at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium on Sunday, March 4.