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Africa is still terra incognita

The continent's diverse history and peoples get short shrift in the recent spate of films.

January 28, 2007|Todd Boyd | Special to The Times

WHEN did Africa become so hip? It seems that everywhere one turns these days there is some pop cultural reference to the continent. There's Oprah opening a school for girls in South Africa, Madonna's controversial adoption of a baby boy from Malawi and Angelina Jolie giving birth to her own child in Namibia, after having adopted another child from Ethiopia a few years ago. George Clooney and his father Nick's new documentary, "Journey to Darfur," is sure to generate even more attention for the genocide in western Sudan.

For all Africa's currency, though, we're still seeing the same representations that we've encountered in the past, images of a continent that's primitive, dangerous, corrupt and in much need of Western benevolence and/or pity. Yet the modern cycle of Africa images, which stretches from the TV miniseries "Roots" 30 years ago through famine in Ethiopia and the end of apartheid in South Africa, emerged in an era that seemed to offer hope for more. With increasing media saturation, there was potential for more depth and nuance.

But the cameras largely moved from crisis to crisis, and in the end, the coverage only reinforced the long-standing Western stereotype of Africa as the "dark continent." In this regard, there was the ominous-sounding mention of Africa as the place where Saddam Hussein had supposedly tried to buy yellowcake uranium in the now infamous "16 words" from President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address.

Still, if nothing else, the proliferation of these political, humanitarian and pop cultural images has created a larger awareness of Africa. Especially since Hollywood got the Africa memo.

A number of films about Africa are getting their fair share of attention these days. Forest Whitaker has won a Golden Globe award for his uncanny portrayal of former Ugandan strongman Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland." Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou star in "Blood Diamond," a film about the global politics of war and violence surrounding "conflict diamonds." And all three have just picked up Oscar nominations. Rachel Weisz won the Academy Award a year ago for best supporting actress in "The Constant Gardener," a film about the corrupt and deadly practices of a large pharmaceutical company on unsuspecting Africans. Don Cheadle got an Oscar nomination for his turn as Paul Rusesabagina, an earnest hotel manager trying to save lives in war-torn Rwanda, in the 2004 film "Hotel Rwanda." The evil of apartheid in the days before Mandela's release was the subject of the recent Phillip Noyce film, "Catch a Fire."

This recent round of Hollywood films finds itself affirming many of the stereotypes of the past, but it also suggests that there's potential for imagining Africa differently -- once we get a clear idea of what Hollywood's "Africa" is all about.

When dealing with Africa it is important to point out what should be obvious: Africa is a continent, not a country. The religious, racial, cultural and economic differences that divide the continent make any attempts to create a monolithic sense of Africa an exercise in futility.

But a film such as "The Constant Gardener," for example, confuses the issue because even though it's set in Kenya, this is in no way obvious. Early in the film, Weisz's character, Tessa, boldly asks the diplomat played by Ralph Fiennes if she can go to "Africa" with him. While saying "Africa" as opposed to saying "Kenya" may seem insignificant to some, it helps erase the reality that each nation is unique.

Tessa's "Africa" is a mythical landscape where the West can create its own self-serving narratives under the guise of representing a foreign land. This sort of "one size fits all" representation attempts to bring an entire continent down to size so it can assume its place in the Western imagination. And often what we witness as a result is a projection of America's ideas and images, with Africa serving as an elaborate set against which to screen its fantasies.

Where are the Africans?

IN several of these films, Africa serves as the exotic backdrop for romance between various characters, primarily the white ones. The scandal involving the large pharmaceutical company in "The Constant Gardener" is tied up in a seductively complicated relationship between a husband and wife (Fiennes and Weisz) and one of his diplomatic colleagues. In "Blood Diamond," a journalist (Jennifer Connelly) and a diamond mercenary (DiCaprio) are unable to consummate a relationship, though her article on conflict diamonds helps to solidify his character's martyred status.

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