In the elegiac documentary “After Sherman,” cameras glide along waterways, soar above marshes, contemplate churches and travel down Southern roads lined by trees, the moss hanging like braids. Under the director Jon-Sesrie Goff’s gaze, these places are sacred, even as they remain haunted by a nation’s grievous racial history.
“I’m Gullah, born in exile,” says Goff, who is based in New York, describing his place among the Gullah Geechee people of South Carolina.
The film focuses on Goff’s father, the Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff Sr., a descendant of formerly enslaved people who purchased land in South Carolina after emancipation. Reverend Goff, who owns property in the Lowcountry, was also the interim pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, after a self-identified white supremacist killed nine Black parishioners gathered for Bible study one evening in June 2015.
While shucking oysters, son and father discuss what it means to forgive. There is nuance in Goff Sr.’s understanding of why some victims’ families extended forgiveness to the killer. There is also reasonable ire from a Charleston resident and tour guide, Alphonso Brown, who shares that although he’s a Christian, he won’t do the same.
Goff Sr. is central to “After Sherman,” but the director also choreographs a poignant tango between his personal journey with his formidable father and the lives of a people and a region. Braiding interviews, animation (by Kelly Gallagher) and home movies, and using intertitles made nearly incantatory by being whispered, the film is expressionistic but never at a cost to its subjects and archival material.
A quietly plaintive score by the composer Tamar-kali provides rooted resonance to this investigative and intimate work of belonging. A work that speaks to, as the director says, “a history of knowing who we are and whose we are.”