April 2019 marked twenty-five years since the beginning of the Rwandan Genocide, when the political elite of Rwanda's Hutu people organized the mass-murder of 800,000 of Rwanda's minority Tutsi people. Last month, Rwandans around the world united through memorials, testimonies, and celebrations of peace and reconciliation under the hashtag #Kwibuka25. After twenty-five years of painful examination, reconciliation, and accountability, Rwandans are asking the West to do the same.
"[Rwandans] remain, I think, justifiably very angry at the way the world, especially in the form of the United Nations but also the French in particular, let them down," Yale's director of genocide studies David Simon told NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the global West pulling peace-keeping forces out of Rwanda and aligning themselves with the Hutu people during the genocide. "That still reverberates in 2019."
Rwandans' feelings of anger and being 'let down' by the world are on display in the BBC Two/Netflix series Black Earth Rising, by Hugo Blick and Steve Small.
Within the first five minutes of Black Earth Rising, a Black man gets to question the white International Criminal Court prosecutor Eve Ashby (Harriet Walker) who's just given a talk about her "justice" work that somehow has only managed to criminalize and prosecute Africans: "What motivates you to vomit up all this neocolonialist bullshit?" As he eloquently reads her for white supremacist filth for the European colonization, imperialism, genocide, and theft that created current conditions in Africa, Ashby answers with clumsy justifications--including "my daughter is Black!" It is a satisfying moment in a series that consistently and deftly handles the truth and how we reconcile the past.
Black Earth Rising is a departure from Western media’s traditional choices to sanitize its colonial transgressions and rewrite history through disparate (often inaccurate) white savior narratives of intervention--think The Last King of Scotland and Tears of the Sun. Even Western media understands this travesty must be portrayed somewhat realistically. Denying the magnitude of the Rwandan genocide is impossible-- it's too well-documented, and the survivors are still present and vocal. Since lying isn't a viable option, omission becomes the next option to maintain self-affirming, Western representation. Filmmakers seem to be asking themselves how they can either valorize a white savior in the middle of chaos or make the UN, French and British expats appear morally conflicted, geopolitically restricted aid workers, whose sole mistake was fleeing a brutal war zone in need.
Thankfully, the series' director, Hugo Blick, resists both paths. He addresses why Europeans were present in Rwanda head-on, acknowledging the intra-European chess game of exploitation, regime backing and coup d’etat that primed the conflict, sustained it and enabled it to spill into the Democratic Republic of Congo. From cover-ups, child soldiers to the Rwandan Patriotic Front, Blick chooses to dive into the complicated and conflicting.
Black Earth Rising is the fictional story of Kate Ashby; the U.K raised, Rwandan refugee (played by Michaela Coel) that the ICC prosecutor referenced as a defense in the pilot episode's opening scene. Throughout the series, Kate's past unlocks a web of personal, familial and political deceit, all tying back to the genocide. Her journey for truth becomes a geopolitical thriller that Blick uses to examine western paternalism, international war crimes, and intervention.
Centering Black Earth Rising around the character of Kate Ashby (Michaela Coel) enabled different conversations from the perspective of a Rwandan refugee to take place. The series received some criticism because people felt the dialogue fell short of the capabilities of the storyline. In particular, the perception of Kate as somewhat self-indulgent and moody. Danette Chavez of The A.V. Club wrote, “Coel, who is an incredibly magnetic performer, does what she can with the material, which seems to consist solely of directions to “speechify” and “fly into a rage.” But those two modes, while helpful for driving the action and international travel, never allow Kate to reckon with what she learns about her past.”
Variety’s Daniel D’Addario echoed a similar sentiment in his review: “As a character whose sense of alienation both from her country of origin and the country she presently inhabits, her struggle is relatable to millions of potential viewers, but as a figure who spouts lines like ‘Nothing about me is normal’ or ‘Don’t expect me to behave the way others do,’ she’s a cardboard cutout of an angsty rebel.” D’Addario also felt Blick wasted an opportunity to examine the dynamics between mother and adoptive daughter. “But on screen, the emotional core of the story is wasted; the relationship between Kate and Eve is cut short before it can develop further, ending with a burst of invective from Kate when a fuller investigation of the complicated interplay between a white British mother and her black Rwandan daughter could have borne fruit.
Both of these criticisms hold merit and validity. Blick's choices, however confusing, gave birth to a different archetype with the character of Kate. By prioritizing Rwandan character negotiations over the white British mother and Black Rwandan daughter dynamic and allowing Kate to appear self-indulgent, angsty and whiny--viewers gain a unique approach to the refugee experience. Refugees are so frequently required to present unwavering strength and gratitude that seeing the other side of their humanity, one of entitlement is refreshing. Furthermore, Kate Ashby openly battles with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression. As a Black woman, an African, she honestly struggles with her mental health through therapy, medication, outbursts. She maintains a level of vulnerability that's unfamiliar.
Kate Ashby is one of many assertive and layered female Rwandan representations within Black Earth Rising. Fictional Rwandanian president Bibi Mundanzi (Abena Ayivor) is running for re-election amidst Patrice Ganimana's (Tyrone Huggins) trial with the ICC. During the trial, her adoptive sister Alice Munezero (Norma Dumezweni) reappears and is captured and charged for war crimes. As the story unfolds, the audience learns how these sisters reclaimed their country with a Hutu-led resistance and politically drifted apart, becoming the rivals seen on screen today. Their past intertwines with Kate's backstory as they drive the second half of the series without submitting to patriarchy or Western paternalism.
In a scene with Kate Ashby, Mundanzi says, "Have you met your own prime minister? Yet you expected to meet me,” when Kate demands her presence during a meeting. Alice Munezero also commands respect in her scenes. She checks lawyer Micheal Ennis ( John Goodman) when he suggests they use a witchcraft rumor to sway public support of Mundanzi. “Ours is a modern society,” she says, in defense of Rwanda.
When the 'sisters' finally meet in person in the final episode, their political sparring and cunning bounce off each other as they switch between English and Kinyarwanda. President Mundazi asks, "How did you think this would go, Alice?" In handcuffs, Alice responds stoically, "The way it still could. You are using bad laws to make sure no one can say anything you do not want to hear. Repeal them." Mundanzi responds, "You are using your public platform to incite insurrection, withdraw your claims." These scenes drive home that women are key geopolitical actors and decision-makers.
Rwandan men also play critical roles within the series. David Runihura (Lucian Msamati) gives a powerful performance as President Bibi Mundanzi’s right-hand man, willing to do anything to ensure she maintains political power. Blick uses these characters to touch on difficult subjects like child soldiers and Hutu remorse from nuanced perspectives.
Black Earth Rising is one of the first series to provide Africans the agency to respond to their history and talk back to European powers. To speak from a place that is not subservient to the West nor impartial to Western culpability. This perspective allowed the ensemble cast to give compelling performances and tell a story that complicates our perception of history.
In a film about the Rwandan Genocide, the discourse of violence and trauma is unavoidable. But Black Earth Rising chooses to express memories of characters, recollections of intense trauma through the animation of Steve Small. As characters narrate their experiences, Small's black and white animation depicts the memory.
Blick was deliberate in this choice. "I was concerned that there might be a sense of fatigue from the viewer and that the audience might, in a horrible sense, feel that they were familiar with these ideas and scenes and therefore not engage with them," he said. The animation reminds viewers that the graphic scenes they've become accustomed to about the Rwandan Genocide are real human beings. Ironically, withholding the real imagery, helped maintain the characters the character's humanity. It proved to be a unique way of processing trauma without re-traumatizing those who've experienced genocide and avoiding violence as a plot device.
Black Earth Rising sustains numerous unapologetic conversations where Rwandans demand accountability--amongst themselves--and those who've deemed themselves the universal determiners of justice. The series engages with the broader discourse of western imperialism and paternalism using Rwandan voices, frequently female ones. It refuses to exploit trauma on black bodies and allows Rwandans the luxury of humanity, even amidst the most inhumane context. Black Earth Rising isn't perfect, Blick’s controversial choices in character development could benefit from more Rwandans in the writing room and fewer plot twists, but it is a step in the right direction.