/ 15 November 2015

Hollywood must get real about Africa

Stereotypes: Beyoncé and Jay-Z dressed up as Queen Aoleon and Prince Akeem in Coming to America.
Stereotypes: Beyoncé and Jay-Z dressed up as Queen Aoleon and Prince Akeem in Coming to America.

For Halloween, Beyoncé and Jay-Z dressed up as Prince Akeem and Queen Aoleon, characters out of the 1988 hit comedy movie, Coming to America, which sees the prince of an imaginary African kingdom (enter drums and zealous “tribal dances”) go to the United States in search of a bride.

Although it was nominated for two Oscars and was well received by its audience at the time, the film is guilty of – albeit “comedic” – reductive depictions of Africa that one would like to believe, decades later, a more globally conscious film industry is beginning to nuance. But it isn’t. A few years ago in New York, I bumped into a cast member from the popular comedy series 30 Rock. Taking the opportunity to get a photograph with him, I excitedly told him that I was from Zimbabwe and an avid fan.

“You watch 30 Rock in Zimbabwe? How’s that possible?” he asked. The idea of my having access to the show from a country his mind must have associated with dictatorship and abject poverty was too perplexing for him – and a big wet blanket smothered my excitement.

It shouldn’t have, because his response was part of an enduring notion that African audiences of Western media don’t exist – or where they do, they aren’t conspicuous enough to be deemed critical or relevant. This is most visible when one looks at the “African film” genre, as produced and packaged by Hollywood. It continues to bring with it toe-curling inaccuracies. Just think of that tired, flat delivery of speech – almost always betrayed by an ill-suppressed twang or drawl – that has come to be known as the “African accent”.

Although Eddie Murphy and his cast might have got away with that sort of thing in Coming to America, it’s frustrating to see Hollywood continue to show indifference to this stereotype today. Just watch the trailer for Will Smith’s upcoming movie, Concussion, in which he portrays a Nigerian-born neuropathologist, Dr Bennet Omalu, and you’ll hear what I am referring to.

But another persistent and common device is to collapse or interchange African cultures as though they are all homogenous and unchanging. As a little girl, I recall watching an episode of the popular 1980s TV action series The A-Team, in which the quartet travels to a city called Bulawayo in a country referred to as Zulabwe. Bulawayo was (and still is) an actual city in Zimbabwe, but Zulabwe was an “imagined” country, which seems to me lazy shorthand for a series that presented factual international locations, albeit not always entirely accurately.

Again, the question is whether I, as a Zimbabwe viewer, was even expected to watch the series and call this out. Was that episode intended for my consumption or, rather, for a nonplussed audience that would generally pay such an inconsistency little or no attention? Or do I judge the scriptwriters too harshly and were they, perhaps, ahead of their time with regard to cultural appropriation?

In response, I’m going with the first option.

Alas, this practice continues today. The film adaptation of the novel Beasts of No Nation, released in October, has come in for some criticism for, among other things, making use of the Ghanaian language, Twi, when the text of the book is said to suggest speech in various Nigerian dialects.

I must add that inaccurate representations are, of course, not exclusive to Africa or “African film”. In a recent article, Oliver Farry, a Parisian, writes about how experiencing the famous city as home and as it is popularly depicted on film can lead to dissonance.

“Seeing a locale you know intimately on screen gives you much more than a flicker of recognition, a jarring effect that can sometimes prevent you from parsing the film’s internal landscape (and even its grammar),” he wrote.

I dare say that, as irritated as a Parisian might feel about this, there are at least alternative depictions of Paris in popular culture to balance the dissonance that might be felt when Hollywood sets a scene with a fake underground station entrance or boulevard, or some other deviation from reality.

The problem for Africa and films about Africa is that the deviations tend to be so big and contradictory that the discerning viewer can become agitated to the point of disengagement, picking through a myriad of inaccuracies. It still gets my goat that some of the names written on boards in the refugee camps featured in the 2008 award-winning Hotel Rwanda aren’t Rwandan but South African.

Furthermore, although I have accepted that Hollywood filmmakers would rather use well-known actors to ensure the bankability of their “African films”, the lack of variety of casting is all too obvious – James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman and Idris Elba have been recast in this limited genre. And this month, Forest Whitaker, of the Oscar-winning portrayal of Uganda’s Idi Amin, has been announced to play Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a new film.

Isn’t this is all a bit nitpicking, you ask. I don’t think so. To tell stories about Africa well, filmmakers must begin to appreciate that African audiences do exist – as consumers, critics and fans.

But I am aware that the space for actors of colour in Hollywood remains limited. As Aziz Ansari opined this week, selling out popular venues like Madison Square Garden doesn’t mean he doesn’t still get typecast to play roles defined by an “ethnic” profile, or that require an “accent”. It also doesn’t mean that a conversation about transforming James Bond to anything other than a straight white male is proving comfortable for many.

Beginning to truly change how Hollywood views Africa may take some time, what with the challenges the industry is already facing in reflecting America’s diversity. But still, it can do a lot better.

Fungai Machirori is a blogger, editor, poet and researcher who runs the women’s platform herzimbabwe.co.zw