The Constant Gardener (2005), International murder mystery featuring Ralph Fiennes as naive husband and Rachel Weisz as the beautiful wife, murdered, but why? Show Weisz’s character, playing with children in Kibera slums, or insisting on having her baby in a Nairobi hospital to illustrate her essential goodness. Show benevolent white man with a shady past, working in Somalia’s aid camps to erase the black marks from his soul. Have Fiennes stalked and (spoiler!) murdered in the harsh, bleak wasteland of remotest Kenya and what do you have? Africa as beautiful backdrop, landscapes as metaphors against which the goodness and badness and essential humanity of rich, lily-white characters can be illustrated. Black Africans as complex characters with diverse motivations, interests, and histories? Try another movie son.
The Last King of Scotland. Want to make a movie about the most significant individual in Uganda’s history? Reviled, hated, feared, even loved dictator who ruled with an iron fist wrapped around a bloody hachet; rumoured cannibal, infamous polygamist, charismatic, anglophilic, barely educated military man who clawed his way to power and once there, thumbed his nose at western dictates? Well why not make the story all about a fictional, puny Scottish doctor who gets sucked into Amin’s dangerous web! Oh and make sure he gets out alive, never mind the thousands of real Ugandans, murdered, exiled, forced to betray family and neighbours during Amin’s time. Don’t say anything about the impact of an insane, paranoid dictator on a nation, an impact that can be seen in contemporary Uganda a generation later. Who will American movie audiences identify with if there’s no reassuring white face as main character???
Blood Diamond (2006), Leonardo DiCaprio, a Boer diamond smuggler with a wallet where his heart should be, finds his humanity in the animalistic howls of Djimon Hounsou, victim of diamond-fuelled conflict. Throw in a child soldier, and Jennifer Connelly as sexy international reporter and love interest and you have a moral tale that would make Kanyeezie proud. (“I thought my Jesus Piece was so harmless ’til I seen a picture of a shorty armless”)
Like a bad optical illusion, once you start to see it you can’t unsee it. “African” movies, where Africa is nothing but a pretty backdrop, and African people are merely foils to the white protagonists complex and compelling character development: African children for the white man to play soccer with showing his kindness, mysterious and sexy black women for him to fuck, showing his weakness, maybe a villager or 20 to rescue; after all, what is an action movie without a superhero?
Out of Africa, A Good Man in Africa, Noah Wyle’s character in that season of E.R when he goes to Congo, the only exception I can think of is Hotel Rwanda. It’s not that these movies are bad necessarily,you can’t fault Blood Diamond for publicising the issue of conflict diamonds, and the producers of The Constant Gardener built a school in Kibera after filming there. But together these movies are notable because the highlight an absence of the alternative: African movies with African heroes.
That’s what we need to see more of. I won’t even take on the issue of famous American actors playing African roles (Forrest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson in the upcoming Winnie Mandela biopic), or Kenyans, South Africans and Nigerians playing Rwandans, Ugandans, Congolese or whatever (as opposed to getting actors from the country in which the film is supposed to be set). I just want to see African movies in which an African character, falls in love, makes mistakes, has a change of heart, grows, succeeds, fails, develops! An African movie about an African man or woman. Is that too much to ask?
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