Africa Dies Each Time She Fails to Own Her Stories
by Karino Emmanuel
Not long ago, I was talking to a fellow writer from Nigeria, an astute lady with beautiful brains; that is if her works of art are anything to go by. Since I was the one who initiated the conversation, I had to start somewhere and with something that connects us as Africans. Although I admitted to her that there is something about being African that I haven’t quite made out that connects us from North to South, East to West, regardless of whether we have met or not, I came to know better in the course of our conversation: the arts.
We started off with books and she asked why I like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. With little or no thought, I told her, in its protagonist Okonkwo and the other characters around him and the situations that befall them, Chinua Achebe paints the real picture of Africa back in the day. And it is written in a simple language. And the thought of it being the archetypal modern African novel is inspiring especially for an emerging writer like me. When it was time to talk about film, we lacked these straight answers. We turned taciturn and chose to channel our thoughts elsewhere because there is not so much to pride ourselves in film. She seemed to sum up her thoughts about film in the title of a book – Nollywood: The Creation of Nigerian Film Genres by Jonathan Haynes – that she asked if I had read while I, before digressing, quickly mentioned that my thoughts on the same were being expounded in something that I was writing, a piece that would become this essay.
The arts – art, music, theatre, film, and literature – are like children responsible for putting their mother, Africa, somewhere on the global map. Except for film, the other arts have considerably made the motherland continent proud, especially literature and music. In no particular order, among others in Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, Mariama Ba, Nuruddin Farah, Aminatta Forna, Alaine Mabanckou, and Dinaw Mengestu, we have African literature rife with diversity and well-crafted stories: in Fela Kuti, Lucky Dube, Salif Keita, Brenda Fassie, Angelique Kidjo, Hugh Masekela, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Franco Luambo and Oliver Mtukudzi, to name but a few, we have had works of music that speak the language of a global audience while at the same time oozing African authenticity. And even though the works of this generation’s artists are worlds apart from most of the artists’ I have mentioned above, the voices and sounds I read and listen to now is an homage that bridges the generation gap hence telling the African story in a fresh way but one which still resonates with the global audience. These two groups of artists have done something that we haven’t borrowed whenever we write a typical African film. Film, like a troublesome rebel teenager, has refused to tap into the success of its brothers, making the same success they have achieved look like something that is not in the realms of possibility.
I am afraid that whenever we talk about the African film industry, we have to bring in the West. It is inevitable, because Hollywood, the world’s most successful film industry, is the ultimate standard. It is one which anyone who wants to partake in the eating of this cake that is the film industry, wants to break into.
For an industry whose stakeholders hold such profound devotion and respect for the arts, take these two thespians, for example, Anthony Hopkins and Bradley Cooper, ineptitude is our undoing, a chance for this industry to keep knocking on our doors and, sadly, most of the time we open these doors. Known for his Academy Award for Best Actor winning portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, the screen version of the protagonist in a series of bestselling novels by Thomas Harris, that once signed on a project, Anthony Hopkins goes over his lines in excess of two hundred times until they roll off his tongue, and; Bradley Cooper spent close to four years learning to sing and play the guitar and piano, and an additional eighteen months to train his vocals for him to sufficiently embody the character of Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born, a film he produced, co-wrote, starred in, and helmed in his directorial debut. This film was released to critical acclaim and went on to receive multiple nominations at the 91st and 76th Academy and Golden Globe Awards respectively. Giving credit where it is due, Hollywood is at its best when it tells the American story, but everything falls flat when it tries to masquerade as the spokesperson for the African story.
I have heard good things about films like Hotel Rwanda, The First Grader, Sometimes in April, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela, Blood Diamond, Half of a Yellow Sun, Sarafina among many others, some of which, to some degree, I have enjoyed watching. The common thing about these films is that they are our stories. The events depicted in them happened right under our noses but somehow, someone from outside had to come and tell them for us. Sprinkling black actors like Idris Elba, Djimon Haunsou, Terrence Howard, Jennifer Hudson, Naomi Harris and Whoopi Goldberg here and there with an excuse of a joint production between Hollywood and our studios, something which ends up compromising our creative control, doesn’t make them our stories anymore.
Is any person of colour considered African? Not in my opinion. To me, Charlize Theron with her whiteness, born in Gauteng Province, South Africa, is more African than Naomi Harris with her melanin-rich skin born in London, United Kingdom. Of course, Charlize Theron has a better idea of what being African really means. Although it makes no sense, Charlize Theron is just a white African and Naomi Harris a black Briton. Regardless of their skin colour, what matters is the place where someone is born and spends their formative years. There is something to write home about being African – we all go through a kind of struggle from the moment we are born, and we traverse through the streets of life trying to triumph over it. It is this triumph over our struggles that animate us into telling our stories and therefore, to bring our stories to the silver screen and have actors who aren’t native Africans and ones who know nothing about these struggles personate our heroes, is the biggest injustice of our time.
For example, what is so hard to get to the point of casting Naomi Harris in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, one of the most important biopics in the history of Africa, when as general knowledge, the character profile of Winnie Madikizela clearly states, South ‘African’. On Half of a Yellow Sun, a film adapted from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel of the same name, Nollywood Reinvented critics: “The movie builds on amazing sets, actors, supporting actors and music, but the characters lack depth”. Like in many Hollywood films about Africa, the lack of depth is a problem that could easily get solved by letting the owner of this story tell it. You can have the looks – black – but being African is something you can’t drive into yourself with a hammer. You must live it.
It has been the same old story: We will finance this project. We will involve you. But what is the point of playing second fiddle in telling our stories? How can we tell our stories when we are shoved in the background, away from the ostentatiously beautiful frames? Passion and truth precede the need for any amount of money to produce any kind of art. To achieve aestheticism, especially in our genre films, sometimes what is needed is an attention to detail, a claustrophobic premise, a clever contained script, a minuscule budget, and a minimal crew and cast. Some independent filmmakers across the world have achieved this and we, too, can. The perfect examples of these kinds of films whose high production values belie the finitude of the things aforementioned are Buried and Primer.
Although inspired by some of the darkest moments in our history as a people and continent like the South African apartheid, the Rwandan genocide, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and atrocious governance in most African countries which over time has healed even though the scars still etched deep on the walls of our hearts are constant reminders, in a sea of sloppy productions, we have been able to make films with production values that are grounded in meticulousness if not pedantry, films that have garnered continental acclaim and won awards. At least with some of these films – ’76, October 1, 93 Days, Amin: The Rise and Fall – we owned and told our stories to our future generations, we took control of our destiny, for what good is living in a future without having any knowledge of the past?
I have always echoed acclaimed writer-filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s thoughts on sincerity and ambition in filmmaking, that: “Films are subjective – what you like, what you don’t like, but the thing for me that is absolutely unifying is the idea that every time I go to the cinema and pay my money to sit down and watch a film go up onscreen, I want to feel that the people who made that film think it’s the best movie in the world, that they poured everything into it and they really love it. Whether or not I agree with what they’ve done, I want that effort there – I want that sincerity. And when you don’t feel it, that’s the only time I feel like I’m wasting my time at the movies”.
This lack of sincerity in Hollywood films about Africa leaves Africa as a shadow of her real self, a depiction that Soek in her essay, Hollywood’s Strange Addiction to Bad African Accents, terms as: “Hollywood imagination, divorced from reality”.
We don’t tell our stories to seek validation from the West. But whatever the thing that is in our music and literature in its crude African state that the West can’t help but love, we definitely should hit that same spot with our films. Do you know what that thing is? Truth. Honesty. Sincerity. But how can they love something that in its making, we have always let them keep messing up with, allowing them to create their own kind of truth? Isn’t Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart, the first original film from Nigeria to be acquired by Netflix, evidence enough of what sticking to our truth can be a boundless factor of places our stories can traverse?
Source: From the Rebel Issue (October 2019)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KARINO C. EMMANUEL who for some reason he doesn’t know, chose to write his poetry under the name KC Manuel, is an emerging Kenyan writer and poet, and student at Kibabii University whose works have appeared on The Kalahari Review, Kreative Diadem, Praxis Magazine Online, and Ghana Writes Journal. His piece, ‘The Rough Ride Home’, was shortlisted for the Igby Prize for Nonfiction. He’s currently working on his first novel. He believes that there’s timeless magic between the tip of a pen and the face of a paper, and that’s why early drafts of all his works are written longhand.