Trans-Atlantic slave trade film kicks off Black docs TV series

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

S. Pearl Sharp’s The Healing Passage: Voices from the Water explores the residual impact of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Sharp (r) is shown directing the film at Goreé Island, Senegal.
-Photo courtesy of A Sharp Show

A new initiative to showcase Black documentaries has been launched. In collaboration with The Black Documentary Collective and the Black Association of Documentary Filmmakers-West, The Documentary Channel (DOC) will show Black Documentary Cinema on the last Tuesday of each month in prime time.

S. Pearl Sharp’s The Healing Passage: Voices from the Water kicked off the series on February 22. The 90-minute film looks at present-day behavior that is connected to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and explores the residual impact of the rarely talked about African Holocaust.

“We know how many Jewish people died [in their Holocaust],” noted master drummer Babatunde Olatunji (1927-2003), one of the film’s featured artists.
Among the other topics discussed in the film is the reparations issue: Whites “might rest better” if reparations were finally given to U.S. Blacks, believed the late singer and composer Oscar Brown, Jr., who also sang a song on the subject. “The African became a commodity … [He or she] appreciated in value every step of the way. Slavery was a very costly thing for us, but it could be repaired. We should renegotiate.”

“It took 10 and a half years from the first day of shooting to the premiere [in 2004],” Sharp told the MSR last month in a phone interview from California. “Originally, I was just making a half-hour film” on an artist, she recalled. “Then over the years [it] kept growing and growing, until I ended up with 12 hours of historians and healers.”

The film is very engaging, if not at times disturbing because of the brutal truths being told. According to Lola Kemp, a kinesiologist who was featured, this might be because Blacks have “a genetic trauma that is passed on for generations.”

The Healing Passage was first released in 2004 and received awards from film festivals in Roxbury, Mass., Los Angeles and Denver. It also was screened at an Oslo, Norway film festival, continued Sharp. “It was an amazing experience to meet all these people of color, many from the continent of Africa, but also from other parts of the world who were there in Norway. There were enough of them that they had an African history [session].”

However, getting her film distributed in the U.S. was problematic, admited Sharp. “We [Blacks] don’t control the distribution resources, and that is key. You can make all the films in the world, but then how do people see them?”

One proposed distributor first committed then later backed out, and two others turned her film down as well, said Sharp, who added that perhaps the subject matter might have scared them off.

“I hope that people will find something in the film that they can latch on to,” explained Sharp, an actor and poet whose work focuses on cultural arts, health and Black history. “Hopefully, there will be something that the people can take from the film that they can incorporate into their daily lives. If that happens, then the film is working.

“One of the reasons why I started making films [was] because of my work as an actress; we didn’t have that much control or power, and I wanted to have a little more control over the project and what was said over the images that were projected.”

She was part of New York City’s vibrant Black Arts Movement during the 1960s and early ’70s and later moved to Los Angeles in 1975, where she worked with such notables as the late actress Beah Richards.

“I have been watching Beah for many years as an actress,” noted Sharp. “We started to connect on a more personal level after a major earthquake [in California] — her house fell from its foundation. I just happened to show up when she was about to move back into her house.”

Richards wanted to write an autobiography but not a “tell-all” book, Sharp said. “We ended up developing a collection of essays. Working with her on that project was very fascinating and very interesting. Unfortunately, she died the day before we were to get our first possible publishing offer.” The collection, There’s a Brown Girl in the Ring, was later adapted to the stage.

Sharp also worked with the late author Alex Haley. She met him when she worked in Los Angeles at one of the nation’s oldest Black bookstores. “He would hold court” at a nearby soul food restaurant at least four times a week. “We didn’t always agree, [but] that also was a good thing about him.”

With the help of Haley and other industry leaders, Sharp published the 1980 Directory of Black Film/TV Technicians, West Coast, and The Black History Film List in 1989. “He was very supportive and very accessible,” she said of Haley.

Sharp appreciates that the DOC, which is primarily available through satellite (Dish and DirecTV), is providing a medium for her and other Black independent filmmakers.

Blacks “have stories to tell, and history to correct,” she affirmed. “We have the power to put our perspective and our twist on particular things, and we as a people are just beginning to really do the deep historical and deep scientific research into slavery and its effects.”

The Healing Passage: Voices From the Water is available on Sharp’s website,,, and

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