Black-and-white footage of violence during the Jim Crow era is woven with scenes of modern-day police brutality. In the background, Malcolm X says, “We were not brought here to enjoy the constitutional gifts that they speak so beautifully about today.”
These are the opening scenes of Sankofa, a documentary made by 21 Villanova University students that examines how stereotypes and misconceptions have a profoundly negative effect on black men in Philadelphia and Ghana. It is one of 16 winners of the Student Academy Awards. It’s the first time Villanova, which has been nominated four times in the past, has won the honor. The university does not have a formal film program.
Previous winners include Spike Lee, Pete Docter, Cary Fukunaga, and Robert Zemeckis. The film is now eligible for the Oscar category of documentary, short subject.
The 28-minute film is a reflection on the lasting impact of societal expectations black men face. Men interviewed throughout Ghana share stereotypes they hold of black men in America, while those in Philadelphia talk about their impressions of black men in Africa.
Sankofa is a word from the Akan tribe in Ghana that translates to, “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.” Viewers are urged to reflect on the past to better understand how to move forward in the present.
“There’s so many misconceptions that get lost in translation because there’s such a gap between America and Africa — specifically Ghana — and we really wanted to bridge that gap,” said Sarah Davis, one of the documentary’s cinematographers. She graduated in May and works in Los Angeles as a freelance cinematographer and editor.
The documentary also touches on historical and contemporary issues, such as the impact of slave castles in Ghana and police brutality in the United States. The students focused on Philadelphia, not just because of proximity, but because it was the nation’s capital during the transatlantic slave trade.
“How do we work to unlearn everything that we have been taught to think about ourselves? Even though the whips and the chains may now be gone, internally I believe as a people, we still are heavily impacted by the way in which we’re viewed and [how] black people were treated in the past,” said Madiah Gant, one of the film’s producers. She graduated in May and teaches English in Colombia on a Fulbright scholarship.
The group spent weeks discussing whether they should include black women in the film, Gant said, but decided the experiences of black women were starkly different from black men and that both could not be fully depicted in the short film.
The students shot scenes in Philadelphia and spent two weeks filming in Ghana in October 2018 before shifting to the production phase in the spring.
The students made the film through a social justice documentary course taught by Villanova communications professor Hezekiah Lewis. Students create a production company and make one documentary, with each student taking on a different role. The class spans two semesters and is limited to about 20 students.
“I couldn’t say I saw it coming, but I knew it had the potential to be an amazing film,” Lewis said of the award, adding that he was proud of the “enormous” amount of effort dedicated to the film and the late nights spent editing.
Lewis said he chose Ghana, but the students came up with the idea of focusing on what they called mental slavery.
Each year, the documentary is partly funded by grants from the Waterhouse Family Institute and the Nord Family Foundation, Lewis said. The students raise money to cover the rest of the costs.
The students will attend the 46th Student Academy Awards ceremony on Oct. 17 in Beverly Hills, Calif., to find out whether they won gold, silver, or bronze in the domestic documentary category.