Where is African cinema in Hollywood?

It would seem that Hollywood has discovered Africa again. But how does all the new American content about Africa’s past compare to a previous generation of African-made movies on the same topic?

Promotional still from African Queens: Njinga © Netflix 2023.

It would seem that Hollywood has discovered Africa… Again. But this time is somewhat different from the previous times. This time, inspired by the financial success of Marvel’s Black Panther in 2018, the studio executives decided they could take a chance on movies that paint a positive picture of Africa, and for Hollywood, apparently “positive” means movies about African kings and queens who kick ass and take names such as Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King (2022), Beyonce’s Black is King (2020), and Jada Pinkett Smith’s two African Queens series on Netflix (2023)—first Njinga (February 2023) and next Cleopatra (May 2023). We might place these historic queens alongside some other recent Netflix-Africa co-productions such as Queen Sono (2020) and Country Queen (2022). These movies and television shows differ significantly from the previous century of racist Hollywood cinema ranging from King Kong, Tarzan, and King Solomon’s Mines at the beginning of the 20th century to Blood Diamond and Captain Philips at the beginning of the 21st century, in which the Black characters rarely spoke and African space was a heart of darkness, corruption, poverty, barbarism, violence, jungle, etc., unless it was loquacious cartoon animals. The new movies aim to overturn the old racist characterization and have the potential to offer global movie audiences a sense of Africa’s rich and complicated past.

However, they are still Hollywood, and so, as you might already know, or at least expect, they have been debated all over the place, including here in Africa Is a Country, which has already published perceptive analysis of the shows Njinga and Cleopatra as well as three pieces about Beyonce [here], [here], and [here]. As Khanya Mtshali put it so well in her article last year for Africa Is a Country, criticism of The Woman King pointed out that the Afro-positive and feminist celebration of queens missed the ways in which those kings and queens participated in the transatlantic slave trade. Indeed, if you haven’t seen the movie Woman King yet, when you do, you will soon notice that the movie portrays the all-female Agojie army of Dahomoy as a progressive force for liberation against the sinister slave-trading Oyo Empire, while relegating Dahomy’s own slave-raiding activities to the background. In this way, both The Woman King and Njinga authenticate themselves in historical reference as a “true story,” at the same time that they cover up that history with wishful thinking and fantasy. Viola Davis, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and the writers of Woman King all admitted in interviews that although they were attempting to make a movie that addressed a historical fact, they did so through the marketable genre of an epic hero film. Or, as they put it, their intention was to make a black woman’s Braveheart, starring American actress Davis rather than Australian actor Mel Gibson.

My own question for all of these conversations about the new American movies and shows about Africa’s past is this: where is the history of African cinema? I’m interested specifically in how we can compare American-made movies such as The Woman King and African Queens: Njinga that explicitly aim to tell the history of the transatlantic slave trade from an African perspective to a previous generation of African-made movies on the same topic. In her article for Africa Is a Country, Mtshali raised the speculative question of whether it would be possible to make a more historically accurate film about the Agojie or the topic of Africa’s role in the slave trade, because such a film might be too painful. One might further ask how an African filmmaker would have handled such a topic. But we actually don’t have to speculate. The films already exist. Although some of these films are highly regarded by film historians for their innovative aesthetics and dramatic vision, they are nevertheless little known to the general public and unfortunately difficult to access.

Starting in the 1970s, a pioneering generation of African filmmakers from Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Senegal, and Mauritania made several important and influential films about the history of transatlantic slavery. Those dramatic fictional films are, in chronological order: Ceddo (directed by Ousmane Sembene, Senegal, 1977), A Deusa Negra/Black Goddess (directed by Ola Balogun, Nigeria, 1978), West Indies: the Fugitive Slaves of Liberty (directed by Med Hondo, Mauritania, 1979), and Sankofa (directed by Haile Gerima, Ethiopia and Ghana, 1993).

These films belonged to a self-consciously pan-African film movement that participated in conversations about anti-colonial politics, debated the challenges of nation-building, and attempted to answer the question of transnational forms of Black solidarity. Moreover, reflecting the diversity of perspectives on pan-Africanism and the question of slavery, the essay film I Is a Long Memoried Woman (directed by Frances-Anne Solomon, Trinidad, 1990), which creatively adapted the poetry by Guyanese writer Grace Nichols, can be read as a feminist counterpoint to the above list of films directed by men. In addition to the films about the transatlantic trade and the relationship between Africa and the Americas, there is also a film about the trans-Sahara trade: Shaihu Umar (directed by Adamu Halilu, Nigeria, 1976). Compared to films about the transatlantic trade, such films about trans-Saraha commerce complicate and decenter the Eurocentric historical metanarrative about slavery. Also, produced a decade later by a younger generation of filmmakers, John Akomfrah’s Testament (Ghana, 1988) explores the relationship between post-colonial Ghana and the legacy of slavery. In doing so, it also meditates retrospectively on the successes and failures of pan-African political ideals that had held such promise in the 1960s and 1970s for African and African diaspora filmmakers such as Sembene, Hondo, Balogun, and Gerima.

How do we compare and contrast these films with the new Hollywood fare? We might begin with the fact that The Woman King, a movie based in history, was inspired by Black Panther, as explicitly noted in interviews by producers of Woman King. What is interesting is that this inspiration is not one-directional. In actress Lupita N’yongo’s brilliant documentary Warrior Women (2019) for the Smithsonian Channel about the Agojie women warriors of the Dahomy Kingdom, she observes that it is quite probable that the fantastic women’s army in the Black Panther comic books and movies, the Dora Milaje, was itself inspired by the histories of the Dahomy and Ndongo states, the subjects of The Woman King and Njinga. If you’re looking for a more thoughtful, emotionally complex, and historically accurate sense of this history, I’d recommend watching N’yongo’s film. As she speculates, the connections between these stories indicate the ways in which the narratives of fantasy and history cycle through each other across the centuries. It is remarkable how much our sense of history and our sense of fantasy blend together. Beyonce’s Black Is King is the perfect example of this—a gorgeously Afrofuturist and Afropolitan mixing of iconography from history with the future-oriented and globally minded creative work of present-day African artists and a Disney story-line.

Nevertheless, the obvious question persists. Is it not significant that the new movies were green-lit by Hollywood executives in part due to the success of a Marvel super-hero comic book written by a white man? Significant, because the manner in which The Woman King represents history made it the subject of debate. On the one hand, one might appreciate these movies for finally offering a heroic African past, but on the other hand also experience some discomfort watching idealized portraits of kings and queens that sidestep the historical fact that they were partly responsible for the enslavement of thousands of people. Just as some social media critics speculate that Woman King was left out of the Academy Awards because of the Academy’s racism, others suggest it was fear of a critical backlash over its problematic representation of history.

What I don’t intend in this article is to take a definitive side on that debate. Rather, what I want to point out is the fact that what is totally missing from the debate about these movies and shows is any acknowledgment of—or comparison to—the movies made by Africans on the topic of slavery. How might we re-think this conversation about the representation of the transatlantic slave trade in dramatic film and television if we centered African filmmakers, liberated from the shackles of Hollywood’s commercial logic?

Taken together as a body of work, the filmmakers Akomfrah, Balogun, Gerima, Halilu, Hondo, Sembene, and Solomon present an alternative to the Hollywood and Hollywood-style movies about the history of slavery. I don’t have time to go into detail about the content and contexts of these films. That is the topic of another essay titled “African Cinema on American Slavery” forthcoming in the book Early America and the Modern Imagination: Rewriting the Past in the Present, edited by Patrick Erben and Rebecca Harrison for Edinburgh University Press. In that much longer essay, I describe all the films in depth in relation to the historical context of postcolonial nation-building and pan-Africanist film theory. Here, I will briefly touch on one example.

Sembene’s classic film Ceddo (1977) offers us an Africa-centered view of the transatlantic slave trade. Historians might be reminded of work such as John Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World (1992) about the economies of Africa at the time of the initial contact with Europe and what happened to these economies (including slavery) before and during the transatlantic trade. Thornton’s study maps the different African empires and their role in developing the global economy. But, unlike Thornton’s history which is based largely on an archive of European accounts, Sembene’s Ceddo presents a political point of view that centers African resistance to the globalizing religions of Christianity and Islam as well as to the economic practice of slavery. Set in a Wolof kingdom in Senegal roughly during the 18th century, the movie triangulates between three political forces: (1) the Indigenous matrilineal African culture, (2) patrilineal Islam, and (3) European traders. The Imam has been gaining influence with the king, Demba War Thioub, forcing conversion to Islam and requiring that kingly succession follow patrilineal inheritance laws. The Ceddo, who maintain the matrilineal indigenous practices, have rebelled by kidnapping the king’s daughter, Princess Dior Yacine. The film provocatively condenses the European presence to two symbolic individuals, a Catholic priest and a slave trader, who never speak but have become a normalized everyday part of the economy of the kingdom. The trader sells alcohol and guns in exchange for enslaved people, and the priest accompanies him for most of the movie and is figured as a symbolic prolepsis for the future church that is to come to Africa. In the film’s amazing climactic scene, the Princess unexpectedly joins with the Ceddo to lead their revolt.

Significantly, Ceddo was frequently cited by the major intellectuals of black cinema, Pan-Africanism, and the Third Cinema movement such as Teshome Gabriel, Clyde Taylor, and Sylvia Wynter at conferences and in scholarly journals in the 1970s and 1980s. They all wrote about it as the model par excellence in the theoretical conversation about how to define African cinema and engage in pan-Africanist politics. For them, pan-African filmmakers and the storytelling techniques of the Third Cinema movement were intended to challenge the Eurocentric metanarrative of history, recuperate an African public memory, affirm a transnational black political movement, and ultimately provoke audiences to political action. Some of their cinematic techniques included (1) the use of montage to juxtapose and layer different moments in historical time; (2) the foregrounding of systemic social contradiction through a dialogic narrative structure; and (3) the layering of extra-diegetic sound, documentary images, dramatic narrative, and cultural memories to emphasize the relation between past, present, and future in order to forge a politicizing cinema responsive to the conditions of their audiences.

As I’ve suggested in one of my older articles about Amma Asante’s movie Belle, there is something wonderful and unique about this moment in pan-African cinema compared to other film industries and film movements. In contrast to the American film and television industry that tended to represent slavery as something safely in the past, pan-African filmmakers in the 1950s-1990s were influenced by Marxist cinema that was interested in the unfolding of a more complex historical dialectic. While American filmmakers saw their art as a drama of individuals overcoming adversity, Marxist filmmakers were interested in social structures and systemic oppression, and pan-Africanist filmmakers were interested in a repressed historical memory and a revolutionary Black identity. While American films foregrounded individuals dreaming of freedom, the Marxist and pan-African films foregrounded communities organizing to achieve it. Although pan-Africanist filmmakers were certainly influenced by the Marxist cinema of the 1950s and 1960s (for example, Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film Burn!), they also found its somewhat clinical focus on the structure of oppression and revolt to be unsatisfying as it did not provide a culturally usable past for developing a Black identity and did not fully appreciate the deeper resources within Black culture for sustaining resistance.

One of the issues debated at conferences by pan-African intellectuals and filmmakers was the valuing of African traditions. Such traditions were both a source of strength and resilience against colonialism and slavery at the same time that, paradoxically, they were also something in need of critique as an impediment to progress on social justice issues such as women’s rights and the equitable distribution of wealth. To this point about social conflicts, Sembene noted in an interview with Teshome Gabriel that “Africa has its own contradictions,” distinct from Europe’s. Sembene went on to point out in a somewhat dialectical fashion that “if Africa had kings, then it also had serfs.” In other words, African culture was certainly a source of resistance to enslavement, but at the same time, Africa participated in the slave trade. That interview is included at the end of Gabriel’s groundbreaking book of film theory Third Cinema in the Third World, in which Gabriel also pointed out that many Black filmmakers such as Sembene were inspired by Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral, who famously argued that the Black intellectual matured through three stages: first emulating European culture (which for the filmmaker meant European cinema styles); next rejecting Europe in favor of recuperating African traditions and returning to an essentialist notion of Indigenous African cultures; and finally a third stage, coming to terms with the social contradictions in order to work progressively toward justice and a better society. Hence, films about slavery were important not only for African cinema but also for African political organizations precisely because they raised two important questions: how to conceptualize this past and work through the contradictions toward a progressive future, and how the art of cinema could accomplish this.

With the philosophy and the cinema of Pan-Africanism in mind, we can return to the recent attempt by Hollywood to engage positively with Africa. When Beyonce sings in her Disney movie Black Is King: “Let Black be synonymous with glory, you are welcome to come home to yourself…. you’re part of something way bigger… bigger than the picture they frame us to see… but now you see it…  life is your birth-right, they hid that in the fine print,” she is echoing the ideas put forward by the pioneering generation of pan-African filmmakers about reframing the cinematic image. Likewise, her husband Jay-Z raps, “I’m afraid the whole game might be colonized… ‘cuz true kings don’t die, we multiply.” Beyonce and Jay-Z’s invocation of the ancestors and their interrogation of the history of colonialism positions them as the modern-day griots that we find in African cinema.

But with a difference. For the African filmmakers, the historical legacy of the slave trade was still felt in the political structures of postcolonial African states that remained plagued by class differences that were formed during the slave trade and colonization. African filmmakers, alongside pan-African philosophers, perceived that the parasitical relation of kings and queens to the people from the seventeenth through 19th centuries was replicated anew in a corrupt postcolonial bourgeoisie at the end of the 20th century. Therefore, for them, and certainly also for us, the reframing and decolonization of the cinematic image meant a rigorous critical inquiry and self-interrogation of that image. Their project is different from Hollywood’s fetishization of kings and queens which ends up being simply an unhistorical commodification of black beauty, as several articles in AIAC have also observed.

For example, Beyonce sings, “Mind body soul got a king body/Body gon’ shine, bling bling body,” where she emphasizes bling and the signifiers of bourgeois class distinction. In contrast to Beyonce and Hollywood’s mythification of the past and their ahistorical, marketable brand of feminism that we can now consume on Netflix and Disney, the African actress Lupita N’yongo preempted The Woman King with her own documentary of the Dahomy where she places the contradictions and conflicted feelings about that past at the center of the story. Her movie beautifully honors the legacy of African filmmakers such as Sembene in the way that she works through these conflicting feelings about the past. Moreover, like the previous generation of African filmmakers, she thinks carefully and movingly about the relationships between past and present and between history and fantasy.

If what you are looking for is high-budget action sequences or glamor, then Woman King and Black Is King are the picks for you. But if you want to feel something in your heart, I hope I have provided a deep enough list of alternatives. I suppose I might also wonder about why Hollywood and Disney are so in love with kings and queens so long as they are elsewhere—in Africa’s past, in Europe’s past, in fairyland, etc. Where are the films about African democracies? As the Eritrean scholar Asmarom Legesse remarked in his book Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System, there are plenty of ancient forms of democracy indigenous to the African continent. (By the way, if you are curious about movies that represent Oromo democracy, see my chapter co-authored with Teferi Nigussie Tafa in the book Cine-Ethiopia: The History and Politics of Film in the Horn of Africa.) Legesse points out that it was the European colonizers and slave traders who were invested in the governmentality of kings and queens with whom they could form strategic alliances, and he chastises academic disciplines such as his own anthropology for perpetuating such lines of inquiry that say more about Europe’s biases than they do about Africa.

Likewise, Professor Saidiya Hartman, in her book Lose Your Mother: a Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007) has commented critically on the manner in which heritage tourism in Ghana has been marketed to African Americans. She notes, “The heirs of slaves wanted a past of which they could be proud, so they conveniently forgot the distinctions between the rulers and the ruled and closed their eyes to slavery in Africa.” And she quotes from Aimee Cesaire’s sarcastic reflections in Return to My Native Land: “We’ve never been Amazons of the King of Dahomey, nor princes of Ghana with eight hundred camels, nor wise men in Timbucktu under Askia the Great, not the architects of Djenne, nor Madhis, nor warriors….” Considering the depths of history behind Hartman’s point, we might instead value the many examples of movies, novels, poems, and other creative works produced by Africans that move us to think critically about the complexities of African social history and that aim to build upon indigenous democratic traditions to realize a more just and equitable future.

You might recall the scene in Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart when the first white men come to Okonkwo’s region of Igbo-land. “The [white men] asked who the king of the village was, but the villagers told them that there was no king. ‘We have men of high title and the chief priests and elders.’” Instead, what Achebe shows about Igbo society in the opening pages of his novel is direct democracy in action when thousands of the men of Umuofia meet to debate whether to go to war. Achebe’s subsequent novels, alongside Kwame Nkrumah’s dissections of the history of class formation in Africa, offer us an in-depth study of how the British imposed aristocratic political structures that enabled their empire to rule the colony indirectly through local chiefs and kings. Such colonial governance damaged the African social fabric.

Taking the ideas of Achebe and Nkrumah even further, the Nigerian feminist poet and scholar Ifi Amadiume has argued in her book Re-inventing Africa: Matriarchy, Religion, and Culture that it is a mistake to uncritically adopt European terminology such as “kings” and “queens.” She suggests that doing so reflects a prejudicial mindset that ignores other, more democratic forms of social relations and the actual lived experiences of African women. Instead, she advocates for a social history of “what African communities know or think of each other… that would allow a society to speak for itself.”

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