The message: films about Africa

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Idi AminI watched The Last King of Scotland again on Channel 4 on Sunday night. When I say I watched it again I mean I persevered until not even Forest Whitaker’s fantastic performance as Idi Amin could overpower the irritating plot. (For those of you not in the know: errant young Scotsman becomes doctor, runs as far away from his family as possible and, quelle Hollywood surprise, becomes chief advisor to the dictator of an East African state.) Stuck with it until I felt I had to do what all errant youths (or not-so-youths) of today do: sit, type, and add another drop to the internet ocean.

I thought first of writing a piece on the ‘real’ Idi Amin, who died in Saudi Arabia in 2003, but two things stopped me. First, Last King of Scotland actually did quite a good job (Scottish doctor/chief advisor apart) of portraying life in Amin’s Uganda. It’s pretty much all there: human flesh eating; body of dismembered wife sewn back together; utter lunacy combined with almost hilarious displays of grandeur; the unbridled corruption and paralysing fear of Amin among the Ugandan political elite; hope lost and promises broken; and the outside (British, Israeli, Libyan) interference and alliances that propped up Amin’s rule, if all painted in the broadest of brushstrokes.

And second, I didn’t want to write just another ‘horror in Africa’ story, one that ended almost thirty years ago when an increasingly disliked Amin was overthrown.Africa certainly doesn’t need us to keep telling them how bad things are. Nor do they want us to continue our assumption that ‘Africa’ is one heaving mass, that Kenyans are the same as Nigerians are the same as South Africans.

But something still irked me about The Last King of Scotland, something that returned me to the subject three days later. And then it struck me: it was those unspoken Hollywood rules for making a film about Africa’s past, the ones, from African Queen to Blood Diamond, that reduce Africa to that heaving mass, that rule out complexity and subtlety in our understanding of life and history on the continent. They read, loosely, as follows:

1. Have a white man and/or woman as the central character. Western audiences will never be able to understand anything else.

2. Allow that character either to (a) save the life of a close African companion (Leonardo di Caprio in Blood Diamond), (b) rise from nowhere to advise an entire African country with a CV consisting of little more than an MD and a cheeky grin (Last King of Scotland) or (c) both of the above.

3. If you do have a black man in the lead role, be sure that it’s a (fairly) major Hollywood actor, one that people have seen before, à la Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda.

4. Include some jungle scenes. That’ll frighten them.

5. Portray Africans as miserable, impoverished, starved and battered by years of war and torment, though this is one aspect of African life that The Last King of Scotland got right. And The Constant Gardener, the latter mainly because of Fernando Meirelles’s style of splicing footage from Nairobi’s slums into the footage.

So what makes a good movie about Africa? Putting Africans and African history to the centre for a start. What Hotel Rwanda, hindered by Hollywood sheen, tries to do but falls short of, is what Shooting Dogs achieves: the show of bare humanity that grabs you, drags you in, confuses your morals but won’t let you go. The potential pitfall of fixing the story on an aging Catholic priest is negated by a brilliant performance by John Hurt and the telling comment of a BBC news reporter: ‘We’re all selfish people in the end.’

The good, if not quite great, Indigènes does it too. It drags us, the western audience, into a world we’re utterly unprepared for, placing us amongst a group of Muslim soldiers from the Maghreb fighting to free southern France at the end of the second world war. Indigènes caused such a storm in France that it forced a re-visit of the country’s military pension laws.

But wait. Maybe, in the end, this isn’t an African thing at all. Maybe it’s just a matter of the medium and the message. Give the audience what they know/what they think they know, and they’ll be happier. Let them think everything might turn out alright because of something they (as a society) have done and they’ll have a clearer conscience (you can see I hate the very end of The Constant Gardener). I’ll bet someone could write a similar set of rules for films about Irish history. That’s entertainment, after all.

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9 Responses to “The message: films about Africa”

  1. John Keating Says:

    Thanks for the great article on the problems we have imaging Africa, though I think that you were a little harsh on some of the films. To your list of films I’d like to add the Musée de Quai Branly in Paris. Jacque Chirac oversaw construction of this art museum explicitly to challenge Western hegemony in fine art. Unfortunately, the museum does not live up to this high aim. Where an art gallery is normally spacious and light, the museum is dark and twisting. The art speaks for it itself, but the museums treats them as elements for an undergrad anthropology course. Disappointing

    • puesoccurrences Says:


      Thanks for the comments. I haven’t been to the Musée de Quai Branly but have been to the National Immigration Museum in Vincennes, which is a really interesting exhibition space (the only surviving building from the Paris exposition in 1931) and an interesting take on France’s immigrant community. I’m not sure if you’ve been, but it’s certainly worth a look.


  2. Niamh Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I know I’m straying a bit from films, but I recently read two really good books about Nigeria by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. One, Half of a Yellow Sun, was about the Biafran civil war in the 60s, while the other, Purple Hibiscus, was about contemporary Nigeria. I thought they were really good in that they both centred on middle class Nigerians, mainly intellectuals. It showed a very different society from the images we are normally fed of starving, helpless Africans, and seemed to portray very well (I’m no expert on Nigerian history!) the complexity of the Biafran war, and the effects of colonialism on Nigerian society. I wonder are there many other books or films out there that do this for other African countries?

    • puesoccurrences Says:

      Hi Niamh,

      I haven’t gotten round to reading either of Adichie’s books, though I have come across them on a number of occasions. I must try to get my hands on them.

      As for novels, books and films about Africa, I’d recommend sticking with Nigeria for one more novel that you may or may not have come across before: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Looking further afield, to apartheid South Africa, Life and Times of Michael K won JM Coetzee the Booker prize in 1983, but it’s a little bleak for my tastes.

      As for films, Shooting Dogs, which I mentioned in the post above, is a superb film about the Rwandan genocide, Indigenes is definitely worth a look, and there are other films like Tsotsi that take a different look at African society and are less black-and-white in their portrayal of the continent.

      If my answer seems a bit sparse, it’s because I’m in the process of writing a post on what to read on Africa, so I don’t want to give too much away. Watch this space!


  3. Niamh Says:

    Ah, I’m jumping ahead! I’ll look forward to the next article then. Actually Adichie herself has mentioned the Achebe book a few times too, so I must try to get my hands on that.

  4. Patrick Maume Says:

    The complaint that stories of Africa are often presented through a white protagonist on the assumption that Euro-American audiences won’t identify with an African has general validity, but I’m not sure the specific objection to THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND is well-placed.
    First the historic Amin did employ a number ofwhite collaborators/favourites.
    Second (in relation to the claim that the protagonist’s rise in amin’s favour seems ridiculously easy) isn’t it a well-known tactic of kings and dictators to surround themselves with advisers/favourites who are outsiders (either socially or ethnically) because since they have no power-base of their own they will never be a threat to the ruler, and because if it becomes necessary to blame somebody for various setbacks/disasters blame can be diverted from the ruler to the favourite (who can be disposed of easily because he has no power-base)? This is why mediaeval European aristocrats were always complaining that the king was slighting his natural advisers (i.e. them) and being misled by baseborn favourites.

  5. patrick maume Says:

    tHIS POST may be of interest here;
    These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

    Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it’s like to be a Na’vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode. Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He’s becoming alien and he can’t go back. He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he’s hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a “cure” for his alienness. When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it’s only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.

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