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Hollywood Can’t Get Africa Right

"The image of the continent has changed little since the days of [i]Tarzan[/i] and [i]Out of Africa[/i]."


In his bitingly sarcastic 2006 Granta essay, "How to Write About Africa," Binyavanga Wainaina facetiously urges Western authors to focus on Africa's dead bodies-"especially rotting naked dead bodies." His observations could also pertain to the way we film Africa. Despite the rise of Hollywood activism, the image of the continent has changed little since the days of Tarzan and Out of Africa: On screen, Africa still must be subdued or saved.Although idealistic doctors, crusading public-health advocates, and U.N. translators harboring revolutionary pasts have replaced colonial protagonists, the Africa we see in theaters is still very much the Dark Continent, filled with beautiful wildlife, savage humans, and wrenching poverty. The heroes and heroines are still invariably white, and their struggles, martyrdom, and occasional interracial trysts still drive the plot.
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Despite the rise of Hollywood activism, the image of Africa has changed little.
The most recent African movie boom began with Black Hawk Down in 2001, a shoot-'em-up recreation of the United States's botched 1993 peacekeeping mission in Somalia. The movie reinforced the image of Africa as an uncontrollable, violent place not worth the sacrifice of American lives. It was precisely such a conclusion that helped pave the way for American inaction in Rwanda when genocide erupted there just months after our withdrawal from Somalia.Bloody realism gave way to heroic idealism in Tears of the Sun, which featured Bruce Willis as a Navy SEAL leading a team through the jungles of Nigeria to save a hot Italian doctor stranded in the midst of a fictional civil war. After witnessing the obligatory pile of dead and naked bodies, Willis's character has a change of heart, violates his commanders' orders, and instructs his men to engage the genocidal Nigerian forces. In the wake of Rwanda, Tears of the Sun offered a sort of big-screen catharsis, showing the U.S. military facing a moral quandary and doing the right thing.Now Iraq has left the fantasy of American liberal imperialism in tatters, and Hollywood has turned away from war toward other moral crusades, casting a slew of white female heroines to fight injustice: an Afrikaner journalist turning away from her family to expose the crimes of South Africa's apartheid regime and sleep with a black American reporter (In My Country); a U.N. translator caught up in a plot to kill the Robert Mugabe-like leader of her fictional country (The Interpreter); and a feisty British aid worker mysteriously murdered in Kenya after meddling in the work of pharmaceutical companies (The Constant Gardener). But the themes remain constant: jungle fever, white heroism, and white martyrdom.The increasing number of movies set in Africa certainly has its benefits. The entertainment industry has drawn attention to serious issues such as the arms trade (in Lord of War) and the role of diamonds in fueling civil war. After Blood Diamond, a few Americans might even be able to find Sierra Leone on a map. But even here, it is Leonardo DiCaprio's morally ambiguous Rhodesian-born smuggler who emerges from the film as a martyred hero while Djimon Hounsou's character is relegated to the role of helpless African in need of Western protection.Of the major studio productions, only Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle, has come close to breaking the mold. By casting a black hero and telling the story of genocide through his eyes, the movie humanizes Africans during a time of outright terror. Also, the HBO film Sometimes in April tells the story of two Hutu brothers-a reluctant soldier married to a Tutsi and a rabid pro-genocide propagandist-but manages to create a compelling drama without resorting to a romance-driven plot. Both have their share of dead bodies, but the gore is not gratuitous.As the killing in Darfur continues, new oil reserves are discovered, and American, Chinese, and Indian companies engage in a 21st-century scramble for Africa's resources, there will be no shortage of drama on the continent in the years to come. Sure, we all want sex and violence in our movies, and it would be unreasonable to expect the major studios to sacrifice their bottom line. But Hollywood can produce action-packed tearjerkers without recycling these tired old tropes. An Africa that is more than lush landscapes, bloodthirsty tyrants, and trigger-happy killers is long overdue.Author portraits by Jashar Awan