At first glance, the new documentary After Sherman feels scattered and unfocused. Both words (either spoken or presented on-screen) and images come and go at a medium, matter-of-fact pace. People pop up and start talking without so much as an introduction. Archival footage captured on 16mm and video are combined with striking shots of quiet, small-town life. Montages are really just choppy, moving collages.
But considering how the film is mainly about how easily Black history can be buried, forgotten, destroyed or literally steamrolled over, its unfocused, scattered tone may be intentional. Both the film and its audience are looking for answers.
Director Jon-Sesrie Goff is a multidisciplinary artist, curator, and arts administrator. This should tip you off on what to expect from After, which cares less about linear structure and more about giving an abstract but captivating look at the people and area he came from. If anything, Goff creates a visual tone poem — complete with him adding some voice-over work — that still has familiar documentary components (talking-head interviews, scenes of rambling cinema verite, etc.)
Goff concentrates on the coastal South, where the islands that stretched from Charleston, South Carolina to Florida’s St. John’s River (roughly 400,000 acres) became settlements for freed Black families during the Civil War. This order was issued by Union general William T. Sherman after meeting with several Black ministers, making sure their people properly got their 40 acres and a mule.
As you would expect, it’s been difficult for families to hold on to what was once owed to them. Land has been seized by modern resort developers and white folk who scoop it up at an auction. (One of the more harrowing sequences shows a tax auction which begins with a nonprofit spokesman pleading with attendees not to bid on an heir’s property items and ends with a sista trying — and failing — to bid on her land.)
Goff spends a bulk of After on the myriad, African Methodist Episcopal churches that are all over coastal South Carolina. The filmmaker definitely had a heavy church upbringing; he even splices in home-video footage of himself as a doo rag-wearing lad, showing the viewer the AME church where his dad, Norvel Goff, preaches. We also find out that Goff was a righteous civil-rights activist back in the day; when he was the former head of the Rochester NAACP, he even got a Kodak plant to stop discrimination on women and people of color and issue them a pay increase. Unfortunately, the elder Goff also had to keep hope flowing in the community, especially after the Charleston church shooting of 2015. (His wife — and Goff’s mom — says he “had to plan nine funerals.”)
For the most part, After is Goff artfully giving flowers to the “water people,” those men and women of color who brought Gullah Geechee culture to the shores. (See Julie Dash’s trailblazing 1991 debut Daughters of the Dust for a more dramatic account of early Gullah settlers.) He also shows love to the contemporary generations who maintain an optimistic outlook (like Goff’s old man) even during the most painful and prejudicial of times.
Basically, After Sherman is a film full of bits and pieces about picking up the pieces.
“After Sherman” begins an engagement at New York’s DCTV Firehouse Cinema this Friday, and will have screenings in other cities this month.