American history is littered with unfinished conversations. Pause long enough and you can hear them everywhere: in the babbling rivers that run through cities and towns, the quiet marshes dotting the coastlines, the lost (and found) ephemera of historical violence and half-hearted attempts at accountability, the shared laughs between parents and children, and the silences too. If we are smart, we listen, we follow these murmurs and we see where they lead.
Jon-Sesrie Goff does just that in After Sherman. His florid documentary eavesdrops on fragmented dialogues: between father and son, among friends and neighbors, between land and river and, of course, between the past and the present. These conversations are ambitiously framed by the director, in his notes, as meditations on inheritance and our nation’s twisted history. And while After Sherman fulfills that mission, it’s most captivating when it burrows into Goff’s personal history, recording the stories and rituals of his Gullah Geechee community.
Strongest as personal history.
“There is a birthplace and there is a home place,” Goff’s father, Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff, Sr., says via voiceover in After Sherman’s opening moments. This distinction between where the director was born (Connecticut) and where his family considers home (South Carolina) is familiar to anyone who’s part of a migratory people. The younger Goff, also through voiceover, challenges the elder: “How is this home when hundreds of thousands of Africans, arriving at these shores, were separated from their homes by this water?” That tension and hunger to define home inspires the filmmaker to return to South Carolina, where he spent summers growing up, to initiate conversations with his father and to understand both those who have remained and those who left long ago.
The journey begins in the past, with a meeting between 20 Black ministers and the Union army leader William T. Sherman in Savannah, Georgia. They agreed that tracts of land — islands and abandoned rice fields — would be reserved and set apart for the settlement of the newly freed African-Americans. “No white person ever,” read an excerpt of that order, “will be permitted to reside.”
It was a promising declaration that, ultimately, went unfulfilled. Another chorus — Goff makes frequent use of layering recordings of community members — spills the truth: “We didn’t get that land.” America’s history is full of broken promises like these. Most of the families that own land in Georgetown, South Carolina, ended up buying it. They formed a community, and what they left behind — that land, its secrets and history — make up Goff’s inheritance. Grappling with this legacy is part of the filmmaker’s journey.
Goff constructs a glittering portrait of South Carolina with crisp shots: the sun, peeking through the tall marsh trees, illuminates the rippling river water; an aerial view allows us to greedily swallow the landscape whole; another scene offers a glimpse of trees dancing in the wind. The filmmaker’s poetic impulses serve audiences well in these moments.
Interviews with Goff’s community, and his father, shade and add finer details. Generations of families stand side by side in one frame acting as quiet evidence of the depth of these roots. Goff’s urge to reflect his people’s beauty shows up here, too, with these images resembling family portraits. When members of the families speak, they recount history vividly and humorously. Some of their eyes twinkle as certain questions activate dormant memories. Their recollections are animated by sharp archival footage: the Black 1199 union members marching past uniformed white men in one scene; parts of a historic football game between two high schools in another.
Footage of Ku Klux Klan members, who planned to ride the same night as that high school game, suggests the director’s keen eye and approach to examining inherited terror. The kids were warned to be careful, to avoid certain slivers of town. The clips of the Klan members are just as vivid as those of the Carolina landscape, the magnified view of their menacing white faces foreshadowing other violence, closer to recent history.
If the first part of After Sherman is concerned with the past, the second inquires about the present — although not as confidently. Goff interviews his parents, members of Emanuel AME Church, about the night Dylan Roof walked into a Bible study and murdered nine of the congregants. (Goff’s parents were members and had left just 30 minutes before the shooting.) In the aftermath, Goff’s father becomes the interim pastor, responsible for healing this congregation and planning nine funerals. The film turns its attention to the theme of forgiveness, a shift that feels abrupt considering what preceded it. Are we to see the cycles of violence and pardon as part of the inheritance of Black people? After Sherman is noncommittal when it comes to that question.
The doc also seems to hurry in the home stretch, accelerating toward its conclusion. Goff Sr.’s activism and importance within the city is gestured at, as is the gentrification of the Carolina coast. But these segments of the film lack the rigor of the first half, giving Goff’s search a rushed and unintentionally disjointed quality. As the credits rolled, I wondered: What will Goff do with what he found?