Tuesday, January 31, 2023

African films and laudable rise of cultural (re)presentations

Centuries after slavery and decades after colonialism, Africans still battle with a prerogative rendering of being labelled as the other.

These misconceptions found early voice in westernised literary texts such as Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ which anchored the basis of African hegemony on the fact that they had no “soul”, Joyce Carey’s ‘Mister Johnson’ and the canonical English text ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Daniel Defoe.

Such perceptions did not only justify the institution of the transatlantic slave trade which became an integral part of an international trading system but also ushered in a period of the scramble for the African continent where supposed superpowers shared a continent among themselves without putting the interests of the indigenes into consideration. 

Of course, Africans retorted. The issue of cultural splendour remained pertinent in the minds of early African writers with works like ‘Palm-Wine Drinkard’ by Amos Tutuola, ‘Things Fall Apart’ and ‘A Man of the People’ by Chinua Achebe, and ‘Foe’ by J.M Coetzee. Nonetheless, in the face of the new media and digital ascendancy, some of these distorted perceptions continued to play out in western-oriented movies, influencing how Africans perceive their culture and identities.

Films that readily come to mind include The Devil Wears Prada, Training Day, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and Black Hawk Down with its white saviour trope. 

Meanwhile, this influence is not far-fetched since cultural identities are, in part, that which is constructed through the information received and processed.

Peter Barry captures the ability of vested powers to influence culture and identity in his treatise Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (1995).

To him, “that which one is told grips one so much that it regulates the very being, existence and relation to others because of its power that derives from the fact that we deeply believe what it tells us. In fact, we are committed to its course”.  

Simultaneously, the tradition of rewriting and rethinking African identities has continued to play out, too, in popular culture in Africa.

These Africa-themed movies entrench motion images of Africa as a setting of beauty, a site of priceless culture and tradition and a hub of a people — not angels, but people — with high intellectual standing.

They emerge to rework the unglorified images of Africa that the cinema had hitherto painted and some of them exhume hidden African figures whose idealistic prowess should be referenced.

Africa’s movie industry has seen rapid growth in recent years. According to the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI), the industry generates $5 billion in annual revenue and employs about 5 million people.

Although far less than its potential to create over 20 million jobs and generate US$20 billion in revenues per year according to a 2021 Unesco report; still, the African movie industry has seen a boom in recent times.

This is attributed to the widespread use of new technology and digital film equipment, the influence of online platforms which enable a conducive environment for a new generation of African creatives and filmmakers and the penetration of online streaming services. 

For once, Netflix now screens more content produced in Africa as audiences — at home and in the diaspora — have shown that there is an appetite for such. Netflix was estimated to reach some 2.6 million subscribers by the end of 2021, out of a population of about 1.4 billion people.

According to Statista Research Department, by the end of 2021, Africa’s leading indigenous SVoD platform, Showmax, was estimated to reach 861 thousand users in Africa while MultiChoice Group (owners of DStv and GOtv) had about 20 million users in Africa in 2020.

For the latter, there has been a recent preoccupation with telling authentic African stories that Africans can relate to.

MultiChoice Nigeria, for example, has produced serialised TV shows/series like Ajoche, Riona and more recently Itura which highlight the culture of certain Nigerian ethnic groups and reflect the ethical and moral nature of African civilization. 

Kunle Afolayan’s Anikulapo, Femi Adebayo’s King of Thieves, TV series Jemeji, Elesin Oba, The King’s Horseman — an adaptation of Nobel Laureate winner Wole Soyinka’s ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ are some of the other Nigerian movies that explore African mystical life and appropriate its antecedence and oral traditions.

Anikulapo and Elesin Oba, if others didn’t, specifically debuted to critical acclaim.

Movies like Silverton Siege (South Africa), and The White Line (Zimbabwe) have also explored African political history and shown that movies can reflect the values of their enabling cultures as much as they can shape them. 

The efforts of African filmmakers in rethinking identities have also been thankfully supplemented by Hollywood directors and actors of African descent and association. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a perfect example. Based on true events, the movie involves the life of William, a young schoolboy from the parched village of Wimbe, Malawi. William reads about windmills in a science textbook and experiments with junkyard scraps thereby creating a turbine for his community and saving them from the cusp of famine and starvation. 

Queen of Katwe, starring Lupita Nyong’o, also explores the theme of recreating African heroes in order to imbue a sense of self-worth. Based on true events, Queen of Katwe involves the struggle of 10-year-old Phiona from the slums of Katwe, Kampala, Uganda. After selling maize to fend for her family, Phiona becomes interested in chess under the watch of the local chess teacher. The circumstances are stifling but Phiona becomes a hero, winning the chess master and changing the fate of her family and community. If anything, these movies show that little peasant girls like Phiona and boys from a ravaged town can rise to become heroes and achieve their dreams.  

Nollywood’s annual production of 2500 movies a year typifies the importance of the sector in driving the economy as well as influencing culture. Films have the power to condition mental structures through the effects they produce — images and sounds, dimensions, durations, sensations, understandings, and thoughts.

Although there appears to be a lot of work ahead in building proper film infrastructures in Africa, the rise of movies that explore African culture and rethink African identities is laudable. It indicates a brighter future for Africa in terms of economy, entertainment and most importantly self-image. 

Imisioluwa Ogunsunlade is a cultural critic, reader and writer with a core interest in entertainment, pop culture, African culture and African American culture.

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