Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Hollywood and the African: whither our culture
Even if the average African viewer tries to balance the portrayal of Africa in Hollywood sponsored movies against the information that might have been available to the movie makers, it still remains very obvious that the average Hollywood movie, deliberately or not, continuously portrays Africa in a distorted light.
It has become accepted norm for Hollywood to assign a singular, peculiar speech pattern and mannerism to the African character regardless of geographical origin. These movies also go out of their way to avoid modern Africa, choosing instead to lay emphasis on slums or build throw back African villages, images of what was obtainable a hundred years ago – It appears Hollywood allow for time shift in movies about the west but refuse to do same for those set in Africa.
One might try to trivialize this Tarzan and King Kong mentality, and argue that those movies about Africa stem from another era, but how does one explain the bastardization of traditional African society in recent movies like Wonderful World, Phat girls, Sahara, when the sun sets and the blockbuster Wolverine (though one might give Wolverine some kudus, it still toed that sour line).
One recalls with unabashed horror a housemaid, supposedly in urban Lagos, near the end of ‘Phat girls’, who conveniently couldn’t understand basic English, the official language of Nigeria for decades (she naturally should be able speak the common pidgin variant) and how the Lagos disappeared in ‘Sahara’ replaced by a dirty little sparsely inhabited islet – very insulting, methinks, to depict a very modern city with two airports, several harbours and millions of inhabitants, this way.
It gets worse, in ‘wonderful world’ where only a small airstrip with a single engine airplane represents Dakar airport, making one wonder if the crew could not get hold of a clip of the country’s international airport or even one of several local airports? Then, again conveniently, a single-room house represented a village in Senegal, how obtainable is that.
Then a five hour trip from Lagos to eastern Nigeria became ‘a two day trip’ in ‘Wolverine’ and the heroes of ‘Sahara’ managed to navigate by boat from Lagos to Mali through a Niger River that aside from being dammed in Nigeria, is wildly known to be not navigable after Lokoja in central Nigeria, at least by a boat the size they used – Makes one wonder if the director bothered to surf the net to find out stuff about Nigeria at all or if as usual it was just convenient to portray Africa through the West’s eye, no apologies given.
Some of the constant goofs Hollywood make about Africa, aside from being hurtful, appear to be somewhat deliberate, as if Hollywood is saying: ‘we don’t have to be factual when portraying you because you don’t really matter.’ Why else would they spend millions of dollar making sure sundry props are up to date and as factual as possible, but yet depict Africa constantly like post stone age society. I am not talking about racism and other like prejudices here (that will come), but simple truth about African realities and lifestyle.
Somehow Hollywood seems to derive a lot of joy – and money – making the world believe that Haggard, H. Ryder’s ‘King Solomon's Mines’ Africa existed and do still exist. Plain stupid or acute laziness, be the judge of that.
Most people in the west know next to nothing about Africa and seem to enjoy this ignorance. Perhaps it allows them to continue to see us as those half nude savages their history books tells them we are.
As a writer with a little online presence, one has had his fair share of stupid questions. A college graduate from the US once asked me how I managed to cure my guinea worm infection and dodge been drafted as a child soldier. It took all my strength to control my ragging anger and educate him a little. Apparently all he has ever heard about Africa were negative. The fact that I have never seen guinea worm firsthand or and knows nothing about child soldiers baffled him. But you live in Africa? He asked. Yes, I replied. But in Nigeria there are no child soldiers and I live in a modern city where Guinea worm does not exist.
This overgeneralization where Africa is concerned brings me to the issue of unabashed racism that the west seems to have inculcated into Hollywood movie culture. I recently watched the controversial Hollywood sponsored movie ‘District 9’ and came off feeling numb. For a movie set in Africa and directed by an African – presumably – there was very little about Africa on display aside from place names and black faces. As a Nigerian I was peeved at the constant referral to ‘Nigerian gang’, and wondered why the director wanted to make sure that tag stuck to the viewers mind. As a black man, I was also bothered by the fact that that future South Africa appeared to be the dream land the Afrikaners had wanted, the one with black servants, factory workers and white rulers.
Also, this movie very much followed the usual Hollywood cultural script (do little or no research about the Africans characters you portray) as the so-called Nigerian gangs spoke South African languages which Western ears will definitely hear as Nigerian languages. No wonder the movie got the nominations it did (I hear it just got nominated for both the Hugo and nebula.). Seems like Neil Blombank is receiving a lot of kudus for this rape of Africa in a movie where, for me, he killed the chance to really tell and African tale, at least a political correct one.
As for Hollywood, it is time they stop portraying us as ignorant savages that should be poked fun of in movie after movie. The producers and directors should spare a little expense on creating factual African characters that are synonymous to real life figures, just like they do for western characters. It is time Hollywood accepts that we do have home grown heroes here in Africa.
On a lighter note, one thinks Africa has come of age; we don’t need western heroes saving us movie after movie.