This review is for a film originally viewed at the 20th Annual Tallgrass Film Festival. WD;ED will update when the film becomes available either in theatres or on VOD.
Racial tension in America is nothing new. What IS new revolves around the discussions we’re having about it, from local cultures to highly publicized events. The country’s media focuses on the specificity of events, leaving out a lot of the surrounding context that led to tragedy and the fallout that applies to certain groups. Gullah peoples in South Carolina detail the fallout of their post-Civil War existence and the racial tensions and struggles they still experience today.
After Sherman, the new documentary from Jon Sesrie Goff, is a difficult thing to wrestle with. Gullah culture is rich, deep, and a key part of the Carolina coastal existence. That’s a lot to cover in a ninety-minute documentary, one that feels like it needs to streamline its target and focus or expand into a three-hour beast that can more thoroughly encompass its subject matter. There’s an unfocused quality to the film that still holds me enraptured, but constantly wondering whether or not I need to be gleaning anything from specific moments of dialogue.
It was a struggle when I learned that the film desperately needs to be subtitled. Gullah dialect is lovely to listen to, full of wonderful sounds and nuances, but the issue is that a good chunk of the audience will struggle with understanding it. There are pieces of non-English, local phrases and sayings that are hard to connect outside of the groups that use them, and an unintended alienation that honestly might be the best part of the film. That disconnect is what has been applied to non-white cultures ever since we abolished slavery and still exists across the country. I appreciate the sensation of stepping into another’s shoes despite the fact that it does make it difficult for a documentary to impact me. That’s not a problem with the doc, just with my own grasp of a culture that I now desperately need to research.
I’ve leveled a couple of complaints with the film but haven’t yet highlighted some of its true brilliance. There’s a musical quality to the film, and that comes directly from the mixture of sounds and languages and even time periods. It’s an ever-evolving session of free-form jazz, glowing and shouting its pride from the rooftops even if sometimes it can be hard to grasp the message. That quality is divisive for me, one that creates a sensation of displacement that I rightly feel and yet contains a loveliness that I can hardly describe.
The use of archival footage to place us distinctly in a place and time we’re removed from helps build the narrative of an American South that doesn’t wholly exist anymore and a culture that very much still does. We can see what we’ve missed and what we’ve learned from it and in the span of moments tragedy and triumph can be seen together. The documentary connects as much with the land as its people, and it moves between the beauty of the moss on the trees to the people trying to bid at a tax auction to protect it. There’s loveliness in the discombobulation and feels in harmony with both its connections and the way it aggressively doesn’t care how you grasp them.
After Sherman was a struggle for me to connect with and it lacks a specific focus, but the beauty lies in the immersion with a culture that most are unfamiliar with. Still, there’s some to be desired from Goff’s work because I want more of this culture. In that aspect, it has succeeded quite wildly in drawing me further into a new interest and further into grasping cultural tension throughout America.
Speaking of which: please visit this website for the film to learn more!