My first experience with black Africans in the cinema was when my mother took our babysitter Nana (aka "Nana from Ghana") to see Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. I wasn't in the theatre to witness this culture clash and not to suggest that Nana wasn't amused or didn't find some relief in a darkened theatre away from three pesky kids, but I sensed then that her takeaway was probably restricted. At age seven, I had already seen and was dumfounded by the humor in Monty Python's The Holy Grail (again, courtesy of my mother), so I imagined that Nana's experience was marked by a similar confusion.
A few short years after my mother took our African houseguest to the movies, Hollywood also brought black Africans to the cineplex and banked on the fact that broad Western humor would translate. The slapstick comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy proved popular and featured a black African tribesman as the lead. Although, as he struggled to adapt to Western civilization, the filmmakers kept sturdy the notion that Africans were best suited to their lives in the bush and Western whites to our planes, trains and automobiles.
Aside from fictionally introducing Africans to the resourceful Coke bottle, saving Africans from hunger, disease and injustice was really hot in the West in the mid-to-late 80s. Like the popular charities Live Aid and We Are the World, successful dramatic movies like Cry Freedom and A Dry White Season brought great exposure to issues plaguing black Africans. These movies tackle apartheid head-on, but the decision-making powers within the story rest almost solely on the shoulders of the white heroes and villains. At the end of Cry Freedom, a film that achieves an intimacy with its black characters, namely the real-life martyr Steve Biko, the filmmakers return the viewers safely to the perspective of our teary-eyed white protagonist. With a white guide to cling to through action in this dark and unsettling place, there was still a sense in these movies that they needed us more than we needed them.
In the late 80s and early 90s, there was an explosion of African American filmmakers telling their impassioned stories. The films of Spike Lee, John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers and Mario Von Peebles tossed us into the action of the black community with black American faces and voices steering the way. Blocked from seeing it in theatres the previous summer due to the R-rating, my twin brother and I were giddy as hell when our dad let us watch the VHS of Do the Right Thing on our 14th birthday. Two suburban white movie nerds, one uncomfortably gay (me) and the other struggling with Tourette's Syndrome (him), we delighted at these urban blacks, stand-ins for our oppressed selves, raging with humor and verging on a revolution. Today, I find the movie's candy-colored palette and exaggerated characterizations a bit distracting. Still, seeing a repressed population take charge in the hands of a filmmaker who was one of these people made me trust in the movies as a medium where stories didn't have to be told by white proxy. Dishing out no small credit to Lee and his fellows, my brother would go on to hone his skills as a freestyle rapper, and I'd go on to study African cinema.
Little did I know that black Africans had been telling their own stories on film since the late 1950's. During my 2nd year of film school at Michigan, my Nigerian professor N. Frank Ukadike introduced me to the films of Ousmane Sembene and other African filmmakers. At first, it was uncomfortable to leave the cradle of the white guide, but seeing black Africa through black eyes sutured the gap between the African experience and my own. One of the first films that I saw, Sembene's Black Girl, depicts a black Senegalese governess named Diouana who is duped by her French mistress into thinking that she will get to see France when she accompanies the family to the country. Diouana is forced to stay indoors cooking and cleaning, and her discontentment eventually leads to suicide. The story is told mostly in Diouana's voiceover allowing us access to her frustrated heart and mind.
In recent years, Hollywood returned to Africa using white leading men to tell African stories in movies like Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Like an alcoholic whose drinking is ruined by the messages of AA, I was left empty and angry knowing that Africans are perfectly capable of telling their own stories. This month, I was able to see Africa again the way it was meant to be shown -- by the Africans themselves -- at "Cameras D'Afrique," a film series from Film Independent and Loyola Marymount School of Film and TV. Grisgris, which premiered at Cannes, was the opening night film and re-fueled my revolutionary film school spirit. The titular character (nicknamed "Grigris") is a disabled dancer who garners a small income from dancing in a local club. Weighed down by his hardscrabble life in present-day Chad, he turns to crime to pay the hospital bills of his ailing stepfather. Grisgris'successes and failures are of his own making. When he gets mixed up with the town kingpin, there is no white man swooping in to wag a finger at Grisgris or offer redemption. We're rooting for the character's survival because we identify with him and believe in his motives. Yet, we're not positioned to pity him or champion his missteps. Like the decidedly darker journey of the displaced Diouana, we reach the finish line through Grisgris' eyes. Now, black Africans have another great story to call their own.
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