Charade, Masquerade and Hollywood’s Africa

Curator's Note

Once upon a time in Diaspora, a sincere African, whom nobody, except an ideologue, would call a cultural nationalist, saw an item on the BBC website he visits, almost religiously, for news about ‘home’. All day, the piece, Hollywood Gets Africa Reality Check, bothered him like a recalcitrant itch. On his drive home from work, a Hugh Masekela song, In the Jungle, from the album, The Boys Doin’ It, became a soothing accompaniment to his freckled thoughts. That album was the first he bought as a teenager with his own money, having just outgrown the prized cowboy photos his clique painstakingly collected from chewing gum packets, and traded, much like baseball cards or stamps. Much older, now, the song’s simulated news report about Tarzan’s eviction from the jungle acquired much deeper significance. Later that night, he thrashed his son’s Black History project, along with all the ‘research resource’ blockbuster Rwanda films from the school’s DVD library. Ms. Progresso, the son’s teacher, whom everybody believed had impeccable liberal credentials, convened a parent-teacher conference during which the principal, Mr. Stern-Heart, decided there were no options than to report the incident to the ‘authorities’. At the trial, the presiding judge, quite fondly, recalled wearing a Tarzan costume to his Third Grade Halloween party, receiving compliments, even from a girl he thought never knew he existed, and, with a whiff of noblesse oblige, reduced the charge from ‘wilful destruction of state property’ to ‘malicious mischief’ sentencing our bewildered friend to watch, for enhanced multi-cultural sensitivity, Tarzan films and other ‘African’ films. Don’t you mean ‘Africa’ films? Irritated, the judge asked if he had anything else to say. After a treatise on cultural specificity and the politics of representation, illustrated with the folktale, Why the Leopard Will Never Lose its Spots, the embattled dad concluded, thus: Dominant cinema’s ‘instant Africas’, however evocative, are intractably formulaic. Several tributaries, many more than can be mapped here, feed and sustain those representational swamps. Frothing with myths, conjectures, cliche, condescension and commercial calculations, the swamps generate wondrous auras, distorted reflections, parasitic relationships, equivocal systems of identification, and, critically, spectacular paradoxes.


I can see your frustration about the 'dominant formulas' but given this, we do need to understand the specificity of those formulas. Watching the clip I bought the argument that depictions of Africa might be shifting or, more properly, a new 'humanitarian' genre might be emerging. Newer films, The Interpreter, Blood Diamonds, The Constant Gardener all deal with with these interlinks between the West and Africa, revolving around (either in the film or surrounding the film) a logic of intervention. Peter Bloom, in his new book "French Colonial Documentary: Mythologies of Humanitarianism" provides a genealogy that stands behind this in the relation of cinema, Africa and intervention.

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