11 Mar 2013

Africa's image suffers in the hands of Hollywood

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 243: Africa's image suffers in the hands of Hollywood / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
11 March 2013

Hollywood has a responsibility to provide better context and understanding in its representations of Africa, writes Adekeye Adebajo

No movies on Africa won an Oscar at the recent Academy Awards. This event, however, provides an opportunity to assess one of the most powerful shapers of Africa's image: Hollywood. The US film industry has had a history of particularly negative depictions of Africans. Films such as the Tarzan series and The African Queen have either portrayed Africans as child-like primitive savages or airbrushed them out of history.

Hollywood has not been able to resist the cult of celebrity white heroes and heroines who act as modern-day white missionaries speaking for, and seeking to "save", the helpless and ignorant natives from themselves. The post-Cold War era has seen movies tackle more serious issues such as genocide, "blood diamonds", and western economic exploitation. Some of these films have demonstrated greater nuance than before, but many still stereotype Africa in negative terms.

The film Black Hawk Down, made with the assistance of the Pentagon, was released in the US amid the patriotic fervour that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. The movie portrayed, in heroic terms, US peacekeepers in Somalia who took part in a botched 1993 mission to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed. After the traumas of "9/11", this "feel-good" movie sought to provide a palliative balm for Americans to marvel at the apparent camaraderie and gallantry of their boys under fire from crazed African "mobs". No attempt is made to tell the story from a Somali perspective or provide balance. Americans, not Somalis, are transformed into the victims.

Somalis are depicted as marauding hordes of bloodthirsty savages bent on killing Americans. No effort is made to show their suffering in a civil war in which 300,000 people died. The use of Somali women and children as "human shields" by US soldiers is scarcely commented on, let alone condemned. The killing by the Americans of 1,000 Somalis is treated as "collateral damage".

Despite the mythical delusions of this movie, the ruthless Aideed proved himself to be a great military tactician. Realising he could not defeat the US militarily, he sought political victory by forcing its soldiers into a costly urban guerrilla war and used his better knowledge of the terrain and US ignorance of the local culture to inflict casualties on the peacekeepers, forcing their withdrawal.

Other movies, such as 2005's The Constant Gardener and 2006's Blood Diamond, though seeking to expose the greed and corrupt exploitation of western corporations, have no strong African voices. The classic Hollywood trope of Africans being children in need of help by benevolent western saviours is ubiquitous. Most of the African characters in both movies are either corrupt, passive, incompetent or heartless.

Hotel Rwanda (2004) covered the genocide that killed 800,000 mostly Tutsi citizens in 1994. Rather than focusing mainly on the barbarity of domestic actors in typical Hollywood fashion, this film exposes the broader structural issues and cynicism of powerful western governments. The hero is also unusually an African. Based on a true story, African-American star Don Cheadle plays the Rwandan hotel owner, Paul Rusebagina, who shelters 1,200 mostly Tutsi civilians.

One film that reverts to the worst stereotypes of Hollywood was the 2009 science-fiction movie, District 9, directed by South African-born Canadian, Neill Blomkamp. Although Blomkamp claimed the film had no specific message other than highlighting some topics that interested him in the country in which he had lived until he was 18, he demonstrates staggering ignorance and exposes traits of the very xenophobia he is trying to counter through this allegorical tale. The film is full of negative stereotypes that suggest a deeply prejudiced mind.

The protagonist of the film is Wikus van der Merwe, an Afrikaner official seeking to save aliens — nicknamed "prawns" — stranded in Johannesburg's District 9 in 1982. Nigerian immigrants are singled out by Blomkamp for xenophobic stereotyping. A cannibalistic crime boss of a Sowetan gang is named Obesandjo: a crude and tactless reference to the country's president between 1999 and 2007, Olusegun Obasanjo. Blomkamp is too lazy even to research any Nigerian names, and appears to take a former head of state's surname as representative of the archetypal Nigerian.

Nigerians are depicted throughout the movie as involved in drug and arms trafficking, business scams, car theft, prostitution and cannibalism. This feeds into widespread stereotypes in SA often levelled not just against immigrants from Nigeria, but also from Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The fact that most crimes are committed by South Africans is lost in such distorted analyses. Such stereotypes help to fuel, rather than calm, the environment for incidents such as the brutal killing of 62 African immigrants in Johannesburg in 2008.

Hollywood surely has a responsibility to provide better context and understanding in its representations of Africa.

Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution.

This article is part of a series of fortnightly columns written by Adekeye Adebajo for Business Day every other Monday

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