Hollywood's Often Annoyingly Lazy Treatment of Africa on Screen Continues in AMC's 'Preacher'

April 20 2017
Preacher - AFRICA
"Preacher" is the latest in a long line of comic books that have been, and continue to be adapted for film and serial TV. Developed by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and Sam Catlin for AMC (also home to past and present critical and commercial favorites like "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead," "Mad Men" and more) , "Preacher" the new TV series, is an adaptation of the comic book series created by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, and published by DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. The series was officially picked up on September 9, 2015, with a ten-episode order which premiered a week ago, on May 22, 2016. In the series, Dominic Cooper stars as the title character, Jesse Custer, a preacher in a small Texas town, who is accidentally possessed by a supernatural creature named Genesis, the offspring of a coupling of an angel and a demon, composed of both pure goodness and pure evil, with power that might rival that of God, making Custer, bonded to Genesis, potentially the most powerful being in the universe. There's more to the story, but I just wanted to give you some general background info (for those who aren't familiar) before diving into the main focus of this article - the nonsensical "Africa" sequence that opens episode 1, which aired last week Sunday night (although I watched it just 2 days ago, otherwise I certainly would've written this much earlier in the week). I'll make this as brief as I can, because this is an example of an existing Western ignorance and negligence we've addressed on this blog a number of times in the past, and, as someone with clinically-diagnosed hypertension, it's in my best interest to keep my blood pressure as close to what is considered normal as possible; so I typically avoid tirades like this as a reaction to anything Hollywood dishes. But this time, I find myself more annoyed than usual, and I just had to say something. The nonsensical intro to the first episode of "Preacher" that I refer to, lasts about 3 minutes (of an hour-long program, not including commercials); so it's probably safe to say that the sequence is really of little consequence to the overall narrative, which will ultimately play out over 10 episodes. Unfortunately, it's not online so I can't share it for those who haven't seen it. Although if you don't have cable TV, but do have an Amazon Prime membership, the full first episode is streaming there for free. The opener begins with the supernatural force (Genesis) that will eventually inhabit Jesse Custer towards the end of the episode, moving through space at an accelerated speed, past other planets and celestial creations, seemingly looking for signs of intelligent life. It eventually targets earth, and, as you can see in the image above, Africa is its very first stop. And just in case you can't identify the continent on the globe from afar, as the entity closes in, it's labeled very boldly for you - "AFRICA."
Africa2
Cut to a scene in some unidentified African country (although, given the entity's trajectory the closer it gets to the continent, it looks like Chad), in which a preacher (we know this because he's called "African preacher") in some rundown shack that must be his church, delivers an animated sermon to his appreciative congregation; "Something is coming," he says emphatically, and indeed, something is coming; something that will eventually take over his body (a few seconds later) with force, knocking him off his feet, backwards, and onto the ground, leaving him temporarily paralyzed, while the shocked congregation looks on in anticipation for what will happen next - likely wondering if this was all some kind of spiritual event they were witnessing.
Africa3
It doesn't take long for the preacher to awaken and get back on his feet, to the enthusiasm of his congregation, who rise up, elated, yelling, "It's a miracle! It's a miracle!" Note that the caption in the image below says, "Speaking other language." So, we are not told where this is exactly in "AFRICA," and thus I suppose it only makes sense (continuing with the negligence theme here) that whatever the "mystery" language is that is being spoken by the local people is an "other." What the hell does that mean? Other than what? English, I assume? Maybe I should be *thankful* that, at least, it doesn't read "Speaking African," as other movies and TV series have done in the past. Imagine if this was a country in Europe; first of all, I doubt that if this alien life-form landed somewhere in Europe, the producers of the series would default to labeling the entire continent - "EUROPE" - as they have done with "AFRICA." They would've more than likely specified the country - "FRANCE," "GERMANY," "SPAIN," "ITALY," etc, etc, etc. They may have gotten even more specific and labeled the city - "PARIS," "LONDON," "BERLIN," etc. They probably would've even been so specific and mentioned regions and districts, like the specific arrondissement in Paris, or whether it's on the right bank of the River Seine, for example. Secondly, if "FRANCE" was the location, and a character spoke "French," the caption certainly wouldn't read "other language," would it? I'm very sure that it wouldn't. But, at this stage of the episode, the producers have already demonstrated a lack of interest in affording these characters a modicum of humanity in simply identifying who and where they are exactly, so I suppose "othering" their language is only a continuation of that theme.
Africa4
Now, please keep in mind that, this is an adaptation of a popular comic book series I haven't read; but, after asking those who have read it, I'm told that there is no "AFRICA" sequence in the original source material. None whatsoever. So while this is an adaptation that, thus far, appears to stay mostly true to the comic book in terms of story, this entire 3-minute opening sequence that takes place in "AFRICA" doesn't exist at all in the comics, and is simply one of those throwaway intros manufactured by the show's producers, strictly for entertainment purposes. Unless in future episodes, there is some direct connection made to this early sequence - one that influences the narrative - I'm left to believe that these opening "AFRICA" minutes are harebrained, thoughtless and ultimately meaningless inventions of some white American dudes who probably thought this would all be hilarious to kick the series off with. And what easier target to be totally disregarding of in terms of representation than "AFRICA." It's been done repeatedly, and it's done twice in this first episode of "Preacher. The second time takes place about 20 minutes later, when we go "BACK TO AFRICA," to the scene where the above sequence takes place, as 2 mystery white men dressed like big game hunters (it is "AFRICA" after all), even though it's appears to be searingly hot, exit a truck and survey the damage left by the supernatural entity, while the "Africans" look on from the background.
Africa8
I'd like to give these guys the benefit of the doubt, but I'm reminded that this is the same producing duo - Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen - who thought it would be a wonderfully hilarious idea to make a film that fictionalizes the assassination of a sitting leader of a country (North Korea's Kim Jong-un), in "The Interview" 2 years ago. As my friend Andre Seewood put it, after Sony Pictures (the studio that backed the film) decided that its theatrical release would be halted, thanks to threats of retaliation should the film be released: "Regardless of whether or not our country is in agreement with the human rights policies/violations or political ideology of that country, to make a film whose plot explicitly concerns the C.I.A hiring operatives (journalists) to go to North Korea and kill an actor playing Kim Jong-Un is not a comedy, nor is it satire; it is political propaganda of the lowest denomination." White guys get to have all the fun at the expense of others, as they are supported by studios with many millions of dollars in financing, to see their puerile fantasies realized on screen. But a filmmaker of color with a script that tells a necessary story from a perspective of people who look like them and live their experiences, minus any white attachments (which would effectively contrast dominant narratives about people of color by a dominant studio system), can't even get a meeting. But back to "Preacher"... The problem with not specifying what country in Africa the opening sequence takes place is only magnified when you consider that, minutes later, as the narrative shifts from "AFRICA" to the USA, the on-screen identifications of other locations are indeed specific, as you can see below. We're in "TEXAS" here...
Africa7
And here we're in "KANSAS"...
Africa9
And here's we're in Russia, obviously.
russia
And, as you can see, in Russia, the don't speak "other language," like they do in "AFRICA."
russialang
What if all of these screen identifiers simply read "USA" and the language being spoken was listed as "other"? You would probably want to know where exactly in the USA each scene is, and what "other" means, wouldn't you? Why can't African countries be afforded the same amount of simple dignity? It's not hard, is it? It's just an unfortunate laziness on the part of the creative team behind this, and an outright lack of interest in actually learning and informing. And the fact that no one on their creative team thought enough of this little consideration to maybe offer a simple suggestion, is baffling. But that's not all... The sequence continues after the preacher gets back on his feet (following the alien entity taking over his body, and his congregation believing that some miracle has happened); he speaks with a voice that's obviously not entirely his, telling his worshipers to calm down; they quickly do, and seemingly regaining his own voice, he tells them that he is a "prophet," and "the chosen one."
Africa5
And he's seemingly punished for that I assume...
Africa6
And, as you can see from the second image, his body suddenly explodes, in comically graphic fashion of course, as blood gushes everywhere, splattering all over the people in his assembly, who, naturally, freak out, and rush out of the space, yelling and screaming. There is a brief moment of silence after that, as the supernatural being, obviously the cause of all that just transpired, exists the church like a hard gust of wind moving aggressively through structures unable to contain it, demonstrating its power. And that's the end of the scene, before we cut to "TEXAS." So what are we to gain from these nonsensical 3 minutes that don't even exist in the original source material that the series is based on, and are needlessly inserted seemingly without adding anything whatsoever to the overall series? As the synopsis for "Preacher" tells us, the supernatural entity eventually heads to "TEXAS" and takes over Jesse Custer's body, making him, quite possibly, the most powerful being in the entire universe - even comparable to God, as the description states. Of course Jesse Custer is white, as we already established. Who else would be given that kind of power and eventual agency in Hollywood fiction? But that's perfectly OK, because that's the case in the original story. No harm there. But to begin the series with a pointless sequence that doesn't exist in the source material, and that, for all intents and purposes, seems to suggest that this nameless African preacher who is completely obliterated (literally from the inside-out) by the supernatural entity, isn't at all worthy of that same kind of power, is problematic. What else are we to understand from all of that? It's established that the entity is apparently on a search for a host, traveling through space looking for "intelligent life," eventually targeting earth, first landing in "AFRICA," finds a preacher, but apparently is able to quickly determine that this preacher is not good enough to host its power, and destroys him in a rather gruesome though comical manner, the audience is given no explanation of what and why. After a very quick flash through "RUSSIA," where we assume the entity also stopped and did a similar thing (although we don't see any of this at all - and it's a quickly forgotten scene), the entity moves on to settle in "TEXAS," where it eventually finds (we are to believe) a worthy host in Jesse Custer. Of course, the entity may have possessed and destroyed others between "AFRICA" and "TEXAS" but we're not told that, nor is there any suggestion at all that this happened. Imagine if the entity landed in Israel, possessed a Rabbi only to comically and graphically disembowel him on screen soon thereafter; or it landed in Vatican City, possessed a priest, a bishop or a cardinal, and blew him to smithereens for our entertainment. I wonder how well that would go over with audiences. But Rogen and Goldberg certainly wouldn't do that. It's much easier and less controversial to devalue the so-called "dark continent," both literally and figuratively (as in "unknown"). After all, where would the push-back come from? This is the imperious US of A! Besides, who cares? It's just Africa; nobody will give a damn, right Seth? It's a relatively (I assume) insignificant 3 minutes of screen time to them; a sequence that doesn't even exist in the source material. The other rubbish I criticize aside, the absolute least they could've done would've been to simply pick up a map of the continent. Really, this isn't that difficult an ongoing problem to fix. There's an entire continent called Africa, which is made up of several countries, each with various different groups of people, who speak many different languages, follow different religions, live separate lives entirely, etc, etc, etc... just like any other continent on this planet we call earth. They deserve the same kind of basic respect and decency - specifically in terms of how they are represented on screen, especially when those representations are created by people who are not them, and who just don't seem to care. They, and their apologists, regard the entire continent of people, almost like we do the ants that we step on when walking down the street. They are aware of "them," that is when they even bother to think about the fact that Africans are actually people too, but I'm sure they would say that their portrayals of Africans as less than fully realized human beings with individual identities are not intentional. And I would argue that it's because they haven't even given much thought as to whether Africans are worthy of that much consideration. I don't have a direct line to Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, so I unfortunately can't share my concerns with them directly. But if you do, and you're reading this, feel free to share it with them. And let me say that, again, this is a common treatment of the African continent by Western film and TV producers (not just Goldberg and Rogen), which needs to be checked. I thought the world wide web was supposed to be bringing all of us closer together, making us more informed, more aware - a connected world, all at your fingertips, with "AFRICA" just a few clicks away. Look, I actually liked the episode for the most part; and I will probably continue to watch "Preacher" on AMC. So I'm not calling for a boycott, nor am I saying that the entire show is ruined by these 3 minutes of screen time. But it was obviously irksome enough to take me out of the episode for a little while, so much that I had to pause it, and return to finish the episode later. Africa is NOT a country. It is a continent of countries.  That, in 2016, this still need to be repeated, is terrible.
by Tambay Obenson on April 20 2017

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