Framing Africa

A Book Review by Martin Stollery.

Framing Africa is a succinct book, academic in orientation, accessible in writing style, lacking illustrations, but graced with an arresting jacket design. Across an introduction and seven chapters, all but one of them focusing on a single example, Nigel Eltringham and his contributors survey a range of contemporary films representing sub-Saharan Africa. Framing Africa fills a manifest gap opened up by the passage of time. There have been earlier books covering this general topic, for example Kenneth Cameron, Africa on Film (1994), but this is the first to focus exclusively on twenty-first century productions. However, Framing Africa is more than just the application of an existing analytical framework to new films. The book’s overarching thesis is that there have been significant changes, compared to earlier films, for example the ‘safari’ cycle, where the focus in films such as Hatari! (Howard Hawks, 1962) and Born Free (1966) was on unspoiled, expansive African nature. Now, the films discussed in Framing Africa, namely Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001), Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004), The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, 2005), Shooting Dogs (Michael Caton-Jones, 2006), Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick, 2006) and The Last King of Scotland (Kevin MacDonald, 2006), run the gamut of genocide, violence, oppression and misery. As Daniel Branch makes clear in his essay on The Constant Gardener, black Africans as independent agents, collectively responsible for their own positive outcomes, rarely appear. Post-apartheid South Africa has become the sole African location where redemptive and inspirational film narratives occur. The examples discussed here are Red Dust (Tom Hooper, 2004) and Invictus (Clint Eastwood, 2009).

Another novel twist is Framing Africa’s contributors. They are not film or media scholars, but anthropologists and historians invited to write about films relating to their areas of expertise. Scholarly perspectives on specific aspects of African history and culture therefore range alongside or against the films’ representations of various African situations. Rather than automatically privilege academic discourses, however, many contributors adopt a sophisticated approach to veracity and invention. Thus, as Eltringham argues, ‘just as a film is not a simple transference of scholarly history to the screen, so written history is not a simple transference of the past into written form. We must be alert to the fact that while cinematic history is not written history, neither is written history unmediated facts but a ‘construction’’ (12-13). Eltringham also draws upon the work of Robert Rosenstone, and others, on history on film, to distinguish between acceptable, even commendable ‘invention’, which compresses, omits, or constructs plausible details, necessary to dramatic coherence and narrative flow, and ‘false invention’, which is unacceptably reductive, or elides key issues central to the historical situations being represented.

Hotel Rwanda
Hotel Rwanda

These broad propositions are explored by the contributors in Framing Africa with impressively consistent subtlety. In some cases the films are literary adaptations, like The Constant Gardener and The Last King of Scotland, but the sensitivity to ‘construction’ in historical as well as fictional narrative does not disqualify them from serious consideration. In other cases, dominant trends in news coverage of the events represented provide an important point of reference. Eltringham in particular draws attention to two main aspects of his chosen films’ relationships to this. On the one hand, Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs offer themselves as more insightful, emotionally engaged perspectives on Rwandan genocide than most of the television news coverage broadcast at the time of the events they represent. In this respect, they resemble earlier films about other conflicts, such as Welcome to Sarajevo (Michael Winterbottom, 1997). Yet, on the other hand, Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs still largely rely upon contextualising frames employed by that coverage, which in this case defined the Rwandan conflict in 1994 predominantly in terms of implicitly atavistic Hutu/Tutsi ethnic violence, minimising its crucial political dimension. Similarly, Invictus invests heavily in, and further contributes to, the media canonisation of Nelson Mandela, which intensified after his election as South Africa’s first black president, and reached a new peak in the coverage following his death in December 2013.

Although none of Framing Africa’s contributors are film scholars, several pay commendably close attention to the cinematic qualities, such as the location landscape shooting, and editing, of the films they discuss. Some of the essays, such as Lidwien Kapteijns’ on Black Hawk Down, prompt questions that lie more clearly within the domain of film studies, such as the extent to which the increasingly graphic cinematic destruction of bodies CGI enables, taken to an extreme with the Burmese bad guys in Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, 2008), has become aligned with a long-standing tendency to represent Africans, and other non-Western people, as an anonymised mass, defined primarily in terms of physicality rather than intellect or higher emotions. Nameless, unthinking, unfeeling members of a crowd, when they are the villains of the piece, are more amenable than white characters to spectacular corporeal disintegration. Similarly, star studies would have more to say about the near inevitably of casting Morgan Freeman as Mandela in Invictus, given his pioneering role as the first American black president in Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998), and his star image characterised by genial gravitas. Finally, and more broadly, the question of how and why mainstream film representations of Africa have changed in the ways they have over the last twenty years, and therefore how future changes might be effected, is not fully addressed. One approach would be to consider the representations of Africa in these films in relation to more detailed production histories, encompassing factors such as the recent emergence of a post-apartheid white South Africans (Neill Blomkamp, Lauren Beukes) as a new contingent within Hollywood, compared to the continued absence of black Africans as film makers, script writers, or source novelists. Allied to this is the relative unimportance of sub-Saharan Africa as a foreign market for Hollywood films, compared to major territories such as China or Brazil, hence less sensitivity to the tastes or concerns of African audiences. Kapteijns’ discussion of the US military’s involvement in Black Hawk Down, and Mark Leopold’s brief exploration of Ugandan government assistance in the making of The Last King of Scotland, are fruitful steps in this direction, but more could be said about the multiple economic and institutional as well as cultural constraints and pressures that shape these films.

Pursuing such questions in any depth would, however, make Framing Africa a different, longer book. In short, it is a deftly judged intervention that succeeds in its own terms, well worth the time of anyone interested in its topic.

Martin Stollery is the author of Alternative Empires: European Modernist Cinemas and Cultures of Imperialism (University of Exeter Press, 2000) and co-author of British Film Editors (BFI, 2004). He has published numerous articles and book chapters on cinematic representations of the non-Western world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *