A still from After Sherman shows a Black person, their back to the camera, looking out at an expansive mountain range.

Observed Online Reviews

In After Sherman, Questions of Legacy Come to the Fore

As director Jon-Sesrie Goff reminds us, history is not just what lies behind us, but a daily practice—a ritual of creation.

by Kelli Weston

AFTER SHERMAN (2022), dir. Jon-Sesrie Goff.


An uprooted people, marooned hopelessly far from home, naturally dreams of flight. The lore so persists that even modern writers —Julius Lester, Toni Morrison, et. al.—cannot resist the gleam of skybound deliverance. But the early moments of Jon-Sesrie Goff’s film, After Sherman, announce something altogether wiser: “We are water people.” This is true, in one way or another, of all Black people who “came by the water,” the weighty voiceover continues. But it is especially true of those extraordinary natives of the southern Lowcountry.


“I’m Gullah,” Goff declares in the film’s prologue, thus beginning his cinematic pilgrimage to coastal South Carolina—his ancestral home. The camera sweeps over winsome rivers and sprawling marshlands as the film considers the heft of this legacy, from the way it informed Goff’s upbringing in Hartford, Connecticut and upstate New York to its broader implications in the scheme of Black mobility (economically and geographically-speaking, as much historically). Either of these would make for an ambitious project on its own, and in its attempts to wed these strands, After Sherman proves a sometimes uneven, if earnestly harrowing ballad of home and lineage.

Goff employs a myriad of elaborate techniques, some more productive than others: he interweaves old home videos with archival footage and present-day interviews, framed by classically lush shots of the bucolic South; in voiceover, he whispers the florid (frequently historical) quotes on the title cards which divide his film into its chapters; there is, on occasion, animation and dancing text. Moreover, he gestures to Black photography, art, and narrative cinema in his compositions. In one shot, the director faces the camera—although he looks past it—while behind him, his father, the Reverend Norvell Goff, speaks longingly of the old neighborhood. Here we are perhaps invited to admire the striking resemblance between the two men, fitting for a tale of inheritance.

A palpable intimacy pervades the director’s individual conversations with the surrounding community, which are some of the strongest moments in the film. When Goff errs on the side of simplicity, he more effectively conveys these central themes: for instance, lingering shots of weaving techniques, loaded with centuries of legacy; in another scene, a neighbor with a euphonious cadence brews a medicinal tea out of a root he harvested himself. An aptly reverent portrait emerges, forged from these hand-made acts of care and passed-down agrarian traditions. History is not just what lies behind us, but a daily practice—a ritual of creation. What endures accounts for nothing short of a tenuous miracle.


Two Black people look in opposite directions while standing against a gray background, some foliage is visible at the edges.
AFTER SHERMAN (2022), dir. Jon-Sesrie Goff.

Perceptively, Goff foregrounds two major pillars of Black legacy: the land—in danger of being taken from families who have owned their properties for generations —and the church, a not uncomplicated site of Black protest. (Hoodoo, or “rootwork,” is also widely practiced on the islands, but receives far less attention in the film). In fact, the director himself is descended from a line of landowning pastors, including his forefather Mark Singleton, who founded dozens of A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) churches across South Carolina. Later we discover Reverend Goff served (not without some controversy) as the interim pastor of Mother Emmanuel—the oldest A.M.E. church in the South—following the brutal massacre of nine congregants in 2015, including pastor and senator Clementa Pinckney.

For all its instinctive eloquence, After Sherman suffers from a lack of formal cohesion, in part because it is so stylistically busy and overly festooned with aesthetic flourishes. Goff flips between multiple formats and peppers his feature with historical quotes that may lend poetry, but often very little in the way of context. The latter feels notably superfluous as the film’s subjects already possess an innate poetry, often left somewhat understated in the film.


A Black person sits inside a house in shadow, but behind them is an open window which indicates that it is day outside.
AFTER SHERMAN (2022), dir. Jon-Sesrie Goff.

The Gullah are particularly fabled among Black South Carolinians; the latter are inclined to boast of any connection to them (apropos, my own mother spent her childhood summers in Charleston with distant Gullah relatives). But even among Black Americans, they emerge distinct in crucial ways. They are the descendants of those Africans snatched from the rice-growing regions of West Africa and developed their own distinct vernacular, Gullah Creole, which contains several words of Bantu and Niger-Congo origin. They also enjoyed relative isolation from whites on the Sea Islands. By this peculiar, unexpected alchemy, they managed to preserve much of their heritage for generations in the face of what may most consistently characterize Black life (not to be confused with Black identity) in America: that is, relentless theft, beginning with their very bodies. Under these conditions, inheritance becomes defiance.

The triumph, then, of After Sherman is how richly it maps this ongoing defiance, and how Goff participates in this lineage of sustained preservation—a careful charting of collective movement through time, even amid all that dismally remains unchanged.

After Sherman (2022), dir. Jon-Sesrie Goff, had its world premiere at the 2022 True/False Film Festival. See here for more information about upcoming festival screenings.


 

Observed

 

Monthly missives on film, art, and more.