Pierre Niyongira begins his tale with recent footage of local protestors pulling down and dumping the statue of deceased slave owner Edward Colston into a harbour. The scene then cuts to a point-of-view shot of a 17th century black woman running through an alley. It is filmed and framed with just enough detail to instil in us a sense of dread – evidence of Niyongira’s skill for bringing us into history whilst evaporating expectations of slavery narratives.
The eponymous Dinah stops and turns, out of breath, to see if she is being followed, with another neat cut bringing us into the present day with Michael, a young African man who has just moved to Bristol to start school, in a similar shot, strolling down a hall of a sleek dormitory. In an elevator scene, Michael’s nature comes through due to the enthusiasm that actor Jabari Ngozi displays in his grinning when anticipating the right moment to converse with two white students about checking out a bar. His attempt is unsuccessful. In his room he listens to a voice message from his mother praising him. He’s frustrated, on the verge of tears, but it’s hard to tell why. Niyongira’s minimal writing doesn’t allow us insight into Michael’s psyche.
Later, walking the Bristol streets, he sees the monument to Colton, not knowing of the man’s history. While Michael stretches, the past and present appear to converge as Dinah runs past behind him. He continues down different streets as skilful editing has us see Michael happen upon the same locations where slaves were once traded. It seems he is being being led – it’s unclear by what exactly – to these places, and ends up bumping into Dinah in the woods.
The merging of the two worlds is believable due to the film’s set design, but the stakes of each world remain separate. For Michael, the importance of engaging with one’s history becomes vital for handling new responsibilities, but it doesn’t appear to lead him to the positive transformation that learning from the past creates.