Keita creates a unique world where the West Africa of the 13th Century Sundjata Epic and the West Africa of today co-exist and interpenetrate. Director Dani Kouyatï’s frames his dramatization of the epic within the story of Mabo Keïta, contemporary boy from Burkina Faso, learning the history of his family. During the film, Mabo and his distant ancestor, Sundjata, engage in parallel quests to understand their destinies, to "know the meaning of their names." In so doing, Keita makes the case for an "Afrocentric" education, where African tradition, not an imported Western curricula is the necessary starting point for African development.
Both ancient and modern storylines are initiated by the mysterious appearance of a hunter, a passerby representing destiny who intervenes at strategic moments to propel Sundjata and Mabo on their journeys. The hunter both foretells the birth of Sundjata to the Mandé court and, eight centuries later, rouses Djïliba (or Great Griot) Kouyaté to go to the city and initiate young Mabo into the secrets of his origin. The Kouyaté’s have always served as the Keitas' griots, bards (jeli) belonging to a discrete Mandé caste or endogamous occupational group, who alone perform certain types of poetry and divination.
The griot's arrival creates tension in the Keita household especially between Mabo and his mother and his school-teacher, who stand for a Westernized lifestyle ignorant of African tradition. Mabo becomes so caught up in the griot's story that he stops studying for exams, day-dreams in class and eventually skips school to tell the story to other boys.
The film pointedly contrasts the moral depth of the griot's teachings with the sterile, culturally irrelevant facts which constitute Mabo's "Eurocentric" education. For example, the griot first comes upon Mabo while he is studying the Western "creation myth," Darwin's theory of evolution, of a universe ruled only by chance and the "survival of the fittest." In contrast, Mandé myth holds that human history is suffused with purpose and that every person has a particular destiny within it. By listening to The Sundjata Epic present-day Mandé listeners like Mabo can perceive the working out of destiny in history and see their own lives as part of a continuing narrative flow.
The Sundjata Epic, which Mabo hears recounts the life of Sundjata Keota (sometimes spelled Sundiata or Son-Jara Keyta,) the man responsible for turning his nation into the great Malian trading empire. Set in the early 13th century, the epic provides the wide-spread Mandé people a legend explaining their common origin and subsequent division into castes or clan families. An oral recitation of the complete poem with musical accompaniment can last close to sixty hours. But, this film, like most performances, recounts only a part of the epic, here the events surrounding the birth, boyhood and exile of Sundjata. (This corresponds to lines 356 to 1647 in the standard translation, Johnson, John William. The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.)
Sundjata's quest, like Mabo's, requires the successful reconciliation or integration of two types of power represented by his paternal and maternal lineages. His father, Maghan Kon Fatta Konati a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, has brought barika or law and progress to human society. In contrast, Sundjata's mother, Sogolon, and his grandmother, the Buffalo Woman of Do, rely on pre-Islamic occult powers or nyama. Their potentially disruptive effect on human civilization is symbolized by their habit of turning into ferocious animal "doubles."
Sundjata himself, hexed at birth by his mother's co-wife, must crawl across the earth, scorned as a "reptile." A Mandé proverb explains: "The great tree must first push its roots deep into the earth." When the climactic moment arrives for Sundjata to walk erect like a man, he tries to lift himself up with a seven-forged iron rod, symbolizing man-made technology. Even this cracks beneath his strength, so the hunter reappears and instructs Sogolon to fetch a supple branch of the sun tree which has the nyama to hold Sundjata's weight. Thus, the hero must harness natural and supernatural powers to fulfill his heroic destiny.
In the film's final scene, the griot disappears, and for the first time Mabo directly confronts the hunter; after hearing the epic, he is finally in touch with his destiny. At this point, the stories of the two Keotas intersect; history and legend, event and destiny have been brought into alignment. Indeed, in making this film, Dani Kouyaté’s (who shares the name of the griot) succeeds in fulfilling the "meaning of his name." He has used a quintessentially 20th century invention, motion pictures, to insure that The Sundjata Epic is passed on as an inspiring force in the lives of young Africans everywhere.