The film starts off with an elderly Divine Drummer, Sankofa (played by Kofi Ghanaba), beating on African drums chanting the phrase, "Lingering spirit of the dead, rise up". This is his form of communication with the ancestors of the African land. He believes that his drumming is essential in bringing the spirit of his ancestors who were killed in the African diaspora back home. The story then goes on to show Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano), a contemporary African-American model on a film shoot in Ghana. She has a session at Cape Coast Castle, which she does not know was historically used for the Atlantic slave trade because she has been disconnected from her African roots for so long. While Mona is on the beach modeling, she encounters the mysterious old man, Sankofa, who was beating on the drums at the beginning of the film. Sankofa persistently reminds Mona to return to her past and is very belligerent when it comes to keeping the place of his ancestors’ sacred, so he attempts to kick white tourists out of the slave castle. When Mona decides to go take a look inside the castle herself, she gets trapped inside and enters a sort of trance in which she is surrounded by chained slaves who appear to have risen from the dead. Mona attempts to run out of the slave castle and is met by white slave masters who she tries to reason with by claiming she of American descent and not of African descent. The slave masters pay no attention to Mona’s claim and push her to a fire, strip off her clothing and put a hot iron on her back.
Mona is then transported into the body of a house servant named Shola "to live the life of her enslaved ancestors." She is taken to the Lafayette plantation in the Southern United States where she suffers abuse by her slave masters and is often a victim of rape. On the plantation, Shola encounters many characters including Nunu (Alexandra Duah), an African-born field hand who went about her day-to-day life with Africa still living in her heart and was characterized as a "strong motherly slave with a rebel mindset"; Noble Ali (Afemo Omilami), a headman with split loyalty between his masters and fellow slaves and who deeply loved Nunu and refused to let anything happen to her; and Shango (Mutabaruka), a rebellious West Indian slave who was sold to the Lafeyettes' after being deemed a trouble-maker and who soon became the lover of Shola. Shango is named after a Yoruba god and displays loyalty to his fellow slaves to the extent that he would risk his own life. There are many instances where Shango gets himself in trouble for attempting to fight on behalf of another slave. Shango often performs rebellious acts such as trying to get Shola to poison the overseer or even cutting down sugar canes out of anger. When asked about why he will not simply run away from the plantation, he says it is because he can not leave his fellow slaves behind. Both Nunu and Shango resist and rebel against the slave system by doing everything in their power to gain freedom. Shola witnesses Nunu and Shango being actively involved in a secret society that had meetings at night and had memberships consisting of slaves from the Lafayette plantation as well as other plantations. At first, Shola claims that she can not get herself to join the secret society due to the Christian in her. The slaves of the society altogether decide to execute a revolt which leaves a bunch of sugar cane land in ashes.
Nunu comes into conflict with her own mixed-race son, Joe, who is fathered by a white man who raped Nunu on a slave ship. Joe (Nick Medley) has been made a head slave and often has to discipline other slaves in order to keep his master happy. Joe completely neglects his African identity and considers himself a white Christian male. He is brainwashed by Father Raphel (Reginald Carter) who teaches Joe that the Africans on the plantation, including his own mother, are devil worshippers and that Joe could not identify with them. Joe ends up killing his mother, Nunu, because he believes that she is possessed. He later realizes that his action was demoralizing and that he had no reason to forgive himself. After Nunu’s death, some believe that she was metaphorically able to return home on the wings of a bird, meaning that her deep desire to return to Africa was finally fulfilled.
Throughout the film, Shola gradually transforms from being a compliant slave to one that gains rebellious instincts after being given the Sankofa bird by Shango. The bird once belonged to Shango’s father and Shango decided to pass it on to Shola after she was flogged for attempting to run away. Inspired by Nunu and Shango's determination to defy the system, Shola joins them in fighting back against her masters in a rebellion where she retaliates at her white rapist and kills him. After her trials, Shola returns to the present as Mona, deeply aware of her African roots. She is greeted by a woman who says "My child, welcome back" and walks past the photographer who symbolizes colonialism and westernization. Mona is now enlightened and is captivated by the sound of Sankofa’s chants and his African drum. She joins a group of black people who have also learned what Sankofa really means and are reconnecting to their roots. Nunu comes out of the slave castle while Mona was in a trance and sheds tears of joy. Meanwhile, Sankofa, the Divine Drummer, beats on his African drums chanting: "Lingering spirit of the dead, rise up and possess the stolen spirit of those stolen in Africa". The film ends with a bird soaring high in the sky signifying the final liberation of those who had found the true meaning of the word "Sankofa" and had reconnected to their past.Sankofa, Kofi GhanabaMona/Shola, Oyafunmike OgunlanoNunu, Alexandra DuahJoe, Nick MedleyShango, MutabarukaAfemo OmilamiReggie CarterMzuriJimmy Lee SavageHasinatu CamaraJim FairclothStanley MichelsonJohn A. MasonLouise ReidRoger DoctorAlditz McKenzieChrispan RigbyMaxwell ParrisHossana Ghanaba
Sankofa won the grand prize at the African Cinema Festival in Italy and Best Cinematography at the FESPACO Pan-African Film Festival in Burkina Faso.
The film is also listed as one of the 500 Utterly Essential Movies to Cultivate Great Taste in Cinema by professors of Film Studies at Harvard University, under the heading "the most essential films in the history of world cinema, 1980-2000."
"The film was met with great approval by the audience, which was as deeply moved as I was by this epic two-hour drama." (William Beik, July 1994)
"Haile Gerima's poetic and precisely detailed film takes its audience into its heroine's life and mind as her moral sense is challenged and changed. No viewer can avoid the discomforting questions the film so eloquently raises." (Caryn James, April 1994)
"The Ethiopian-born Gerima, best known for "Bush Mama"—his 1976 portrait of an impoverished woman living in Watts—has brought a distinctive style and an often raw but always authoritative command of his medium to confront the horrors of slavery and its persisting significance, perhaps as no other filmmaker has." (Kevin Thomas, 12 May 1995)
"Sankofa (1993) is a compelling historical account of the Maafa, the African Holocaust. This rich film illustrates slavery from the view that many Blacks have been denied, their history. It explores the themes of loss of identity and racial consciousness; respecting and returning to our ancestral roots; and recognizing the connections that exist between people of African descent who live throughout the world." (Michelle L. McClure, Black Camera, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2000, p. 9)
"Clearly, Gerima intends for Sankofa to expand the boundaries of Black representation in ways that include more diverse, realistic, and empowering images and, in turn, enable Black audiences to see themselves in new ways that are divorced from dominant images." (Assata E. Wright, Black Film Review, 08875723, 1994, Vol. 8, Issue 1)
The film was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival.