In Hollywood's representation of post-apartheid Africa, story has changed but racism remains

July 24, 2012

Steve Bynum

For nearly a century, Hollywood portrayed Africa and Africans through the lens of overt racism. A number of films made after 1994, such as Black Hawk Down, Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland, The Constant Gardener, Shake Hands with the Devil, Tears of the Sun, and District 9, to name a few, reveal explicit and implicit messages and lessons about the effects of Western intervention in Africa.

The forthcoming book Hollywood’s Africa after 1994 investigates Hollywood’s colonial film legacy in the post-apartheid era, and contemplates what’s changed in how the West represents Africa. It's author, MaryEllen Higgins, sees a new type of covert — though not necessarily malicious — type of racism in Hollywood's representations of modern Africa.

Milos Stehlik's picks:
The best (and worst) films on Africa

Best films on video by African directors:
Adanggaman
Halfaouine
Hyenas
Bamako
Darratt
Dry White Season
Faces of Women
Harvest: 3000 Years
Mama Africa
Moolaade
Quartier Mozart
Sankofa
Touki Bouki
Waiting for Happiness
Xala
Yaaba
Yeelen

Great African filmmakers you have to search for:
Ousmane Sembene 
Sara Maldoror 
Med Hondo
Idrissa Ouedraogo

Worst films set in Africa:
Out of Africa
Black Hawk Down
Africa Screams
The Lion King
African Queen
Cobra Verde
With Stanley in Africa
Sahara
Blood Diamond
Hotel Rwanda
The Gods Must Be Crazy

Best Africa films by foreign filmmakers:
Chocolat
Idi Amin Dada 
ParadiseLove — opens fall 2012
Kirikou and the Sorceress
Nowhere in Africa
Coup de Torchon 
Les Maitres Fou
Darwin's Nightmare
Come Back Africa 
Africa: How Are You With Pain?
Milking the Rhino

This simplified, paternalistic view of Africa and Africans finds its way to Western audiences under the guise of human rights and other well-meaning themes, commonly centering on a savior from the west, be it a person, country or international body.

Here, Higgins offers up her favorite films and filmmakers on the subject of Africa and its people that counteract this dominant Hollywood narrative:

I recommend Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s trilogy of feature films, Abouna (Our Father), Daratt (Dry Season) and Un homme qui crie (A Screaming Man). I am especially fond of Un home qui crie, a film that contemplates the consequences of neo-liberalism, the decline of African patriarchs, and civil war in Chad. I also suggest Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s feature film La vie sur terre (Life on Earth) and his documentary Bamako, which Jill spoke about in her interview.

The late Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety made a brilliant feature film, Hyenas; it merges the western film genre and a Swiss play to offer an artistic critique of the World Bank and global materialism.

In my view, Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo is one of the most inventive directors anywhere. I find his Le complot d’Aristote (Aristotle’s Plot) to be wonderfully clever. Another Cameroonian director, Jean-Marie Teno, has shot excellent documentaries such as Afrique, je te plumerai (Africa, I Will Fleece You), Chef! (Chief), and Le malentendu colonial (The Colonial Misunderstanding). This last film reflects upon the German genocide of the Herrero people in Namibia.

Senegalese director Moussa Sene Absa manages to merge popular cinema and serious critique in Tableau Ferraille, a film about polygamy and political corruption starring Ismaël Lô. Les silences du palais (The Silences of the Palace) is a beautiful film by Tunisian director Moufida Tlatli. Tlatli’s films offer stunning cinematography as well as sophisticated meditation on the politics of gender in the Maghreb. Tunisian director Férid Boughedir’s Un été à la Goulette (A Summer at the Goulette) is a humorous film about ordinary romance with a poignant, political ending. Of course, I suggest that everyone see the works of two of the most influential directors of African cinema, Ousmane Sembène (from Senegal) and Haile Gerima (from Ethiopia). These are just a few examples of great African films.

There are, I think, some films featuring Hollywood celebrities that break the “Western savior” mold. Two examples benefit from the writing of Gillian Slovo and Shawn Slovo (daughters of the late South African activists Ruth First and Joe Slovo): British director Tom Hooper’s Red Dust and Australian director Phillip Noyce’s Catch a Fire. Lastly, Invictus is not a perfect film, but I think that it’s great that Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood directed a film about Nelson Mandela’s battle against the very expectation of African failure that other Hollywood films tend to perpetuate. In other words, Invictus’s Mandela defies expectations that South Africa will plunge into catastrophe, and he does so without the assistance of western saviors.

Finally, I recommend that all human rights activists read books by Mahmood Mamdani (his Saviors and Survivors in particular).

MaryEllen Higgins is an associate professor of English at the Greater Allegheny Campus of Pennsylvania State University. She also co-authored The Historical Dictionary of French Cinema.

This post is part of Worldview's occasional series Images, Movies and Race, produced in conjunction with WBEZ’s Race: Out Loud series. Listen to film contributor Milos Stehlik's other conversations, with actress and University of Hartford professor Joyce Ashuntantang and filmmaker Jill Godmilow, as they explore how modern Hollywood films on Africa hide racist overtones within heroic, feel-good stories.