Earnest Goes to Africa

Leo and Djimon run from the effects of a riot caused by the former’s infuriating faux-South African accent. Also, U.S. ™ Africa. (Sort of.)
For me, it started back in 1992 with The Power of One; a South African epic about apartheid, the film was my first window into the so-called Dark Continent that had, up until that point, only been known to me via The African Queen and Out of Africa — neither of which were especially African — and, of course, the “We Are the World” campaign. Still young at the time, I understood The Power of One only for its parallels to the US’s race issue, but, ultimately, Africa was too far away to really think about. The ’90s were littered with a few more films that took place somewhere on the continent (most notably the documentary Cry Freetown, about the Sierra Leone civil war) but still Hollywood didn’t care much about exploring what was happening across the Atlantic because … well, I suppose it wasn’t selling them many tickets. Attitudes have changed in the decade we are currently slogging through, with the release during the last three years of a slew of major films about Africa — Blood Diamond and Catch a Fire, most recently — with more to come. And so, one has to wonder: Why the change of heart? When did African tragedy become, for lack of a better word, trendy?

The sudden boom in Africa-centric films started with Hotel Rwanda in 2004; the two Oscar nominations Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo landed certainly made some studio heads take note. That year also saw the release of John Boorman’s widely overlooked In My Country. 2005 gave us The Constant Gardener, which earned Rachel Weisz a Best Actress Oscar for her work, and Tsotsi, the South African film that won the Oscar for best foreign language picture. This year, Blood Diamond, Catch a Fire, The Last King of Scotland, and a significant portion of Babel are set in Africa as well — and next year looks just as busy. Africa, as I pointed out, is trendy. At this rate, 94.7 percent of all films made will be based in Africa by 2010 if something isn’t done to stop it.

Anyway, back on point: Films don’t just pop up overnight. They usually take two or three years to develop, sometimes many years more. That means, at the earliest, producers were thinking about Hotel Rwanda as a viable project back in, maybe, 2002. This is right around the time that Sierra Leone’s violent civil war was concluding. Neighboring Liberia’s conflict, in which 250,000 died, ended a year later. The Rwandan genocide took place eight years earlier, and apartheid ended in 1994, too. Don’t forget the Congo: The Republic of the Congo suffered a brief civil war in 1997, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been enduring an almost endless war since 1998, the bloodiest conflict since WWII. In other words: in the ’90s and the early part of this decade, Africa underwent some pretty horrible events, and it’s only now, as we get distance, that we’re able to also find perspective about what unfolded. It’s only now that Hollywood is realizing that, in the quest for drama and conflict, there is no better arena than Africa. It has the potential to be what Europe’s feudal culture was for Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Celebrities have also inluenced public awareness of Africa’s plight, especially with regard to poverty, international debt, and the genocide that continues in places like Darfur. Bono may have done more in this regard than any other notable figure of the past 20 years. Working with Bob Geldoff, his Live 8 international concerts became an international event that begged the G-8 to forgive debt Africa countries would never be able to pay. Don Cheadle was a major reason Hotel Rwanda got made. Mia Farrow, Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney and more have made the continent the subject of their latest passion projects, too. Hell, Angelina Jolie and Madonna went so far as to adopt African children. How could the world not start paying attention when its celebrity-obsessed culture was forced to focus on Africa-obsessed celebrities?

This increased interest in Africa also stokes the Western world’s guilt over its abusive, exploitative role in Africa’s colonial and post-colonial history. This again draws us to Africa, a world the white man turned to shit (not unlike the Middle East), but, since we don’t want to hate ourselves too much, we just watch movies about it in comfortable movie theatres with electricity and clean water. To get any closer than that would be ludicrous. It’s why the characters in these movies, like Djimon Honsous’s in Blood Diamond, always ask if the wealthy nations, when they learn the truth, will come to help. The filmmakers, whether they’re simply following a trend or not, are at least aware enough to point out that, in the end, we care. But not enough.


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