‘After Sherman’ Review: Jon-Sesrie Goff Offers a Cinematic Prayer For & By South Carolina [True/False Film Festival]

Native sons and daughters of the American South have offered many a meditation on the soil where their lineage was replanted. But the observations and insights of documentarian Jon-Sesrie Goff form something that strikes with the potency of prayer. His “After Sherman” serves as both a psalm of thanksgiving and a cry of lamentation for the family legacy he claims – as well as the cultural history he cannot escape. Goff seeks not to vanquish or reconcile this conflict so much as he looks to embrace the beauty inherent within these contradictions for Black Southerners like himself.

READ MORE: The Best Documentaries Of 2021

The filmmaker is very much the subject of “After Sherman.” His back faces the camera in the final shot, both centering himself and obscuring his emotional response to the spirited pastoral sermon heard in voiceover. But Goff conceptualizes his own position as situated within something larger than himself, an “I” within a “community.” He’s merely the latest in a line of generations to interrogate their relationship to a land that contains the memory of their blood and the first traces of their roots.

But Goff’s generous survey of South Carolina’s Lowcountry landowners drifts further heavenwards on the wings of the great chorus of voices his film encompasses. He takes care to frame these interviewees like subjects in a painter’s studio, not merely talking heads in a TV studio. Goff frequently shoots them in locations where they feel empowered and enlivened, a display of ownership that illustrates the defiance and dominance implicit in their persistent presence. An understanding of the spiritual link between people and property is so deeply in the marrow of “After Sherman” that it spares Goff the need to preach himself.

“After Sherman” downplays these more transparently topical elements of its origins, the massacre of nine Black parishioners at Charleston’s historic Mother Emanuel AME Church – an event at which Goff’s parents avoided being at by only twenty minutes. If the mass shooting was a tsunami of racist aggression washing up unspoken grievances, Goff trains his camera primarily at the small waves that ripple on the shore afterward. He finds the heart and soul of his film in the literally whispered histories and unheralded points of pride that wash up with the debris.

While rigorous and thoughtful in its analysis of the double consciousness spawned by the South, “After Sherman” never loses a home-spun quality. Goff, whose background is in experimental and interdisciplinary documentary art, bestows the film with a palpable texture. That’s not euphemistic, either. The film’s collage-like construction has multiple sequences with a tactile dimensionality that moves the project out of a purely conceptual realm. There’s a reason the most poignant discussions of the film’s thorniest question, forgiveness and turning the other cheek, occur over foods like crabs and oysters that we can taste and feel. They move the conversations from an intellectual construction to an immediate and sensorial experience, the manner in which the Goffs and other Black Southerners experience such issues.

“After Sherman” ultimately comes to embody Goff’s own conflicts as author and person. Goff can give life and light to a panoply of perspectives, orchestrating them into an aching yet hopeful symphony. This harmonization incorporates all the discordant notes struck by his family members rather than omitting them in a sign of well-worn wisdom. He does not let the irreconcilability of the situation drive him into cynical despair. Instead, he lets it fuel the restless inquisitiveness of the work itself.

None of this is to say that all the discursive trains of thought Goff follows hit with the same impact. Especially as “After Sherman” directly deals with the events of the church shooting, the film’s attempts to bring its themes in conversation with something timely rather than timeless just don’t reverberate with the same power. But in total, Goff effectively bottles the energy generated when history collides with memory and lets it resound in his feature to stirring effect. [B+]