Narrative: A message that tells the particulars of an act or occurrence or course of events, presented in writing or drama or cinema, or as a radio or television programme.
Cinema, for a little over 100 years, has been responsible for creating narratives about people; the one created by outsiders (White Hollywood about other countries, religions and cultures), and the one people tell about themselves. Narratives have the power to enlighten and shift paradigms, but have also been responsible for re-writing history, creating and reinforcing stereotypes.
Most of the time, narratives are the only story outsiders would know about a people and when the most visible narrative is wrong, or is the only narrative, it’s quite dangerous. It allows too much room for abuse, misunderstanding and hate; which is why it’s important for people to be in control of their own narrative. Ethnicity, religion, tribal, race often face misrepresentation when the narrative is told by an outsider.
If misrepresentation was a crime, Hollywood would have several life sentences without parole, particularly when it comes to how it portrays Africans. We are tour guides, savages, child soldiers, precocious children, people in need of saving. They aren’t entirely inaccurate, but they are woefully incomplete. There is a long list of Hollywood films set in Africa, usually no specific country is mentioned, and often most of the previously-mentioned boxes are checked.
“History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated and the winner writes the history books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe“- Dan Brown
When it comes to culture and narratives, Hollywood has the largest, most powerful megaphone and tells a single story about Africans, which largely tells the world that African is a country, thus you hear Westerners make statements like, “I’m going to Africa”, “Starving children in Africa”, “Do you speak African?” ,”I’m having an African Themed party” etc, reducing the continent of 54 countries, with over 500 languages, tribes and various ethnicities, into one homogeneous body.
While not denying that there is a lot of unpleasantness on the continent – war, poverty, a history of dictators – those things are not exclusive to Africa. Europe and Asia have had their equal share. There are several other narratives, like that of courage, honour, and self-sacrifice for example. So how do filmmakers from Africa change this narrative?
Well, speaking for Nigeria, our own narratives have been told for centuries through the griots, town criers, village elders in the town square, etc. Novelists like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri , Cyprian Ekwensi ,Chimamanda Adichie and many others have told the authentic multi-layered Nigerian story. Fela Kuti spoke the heart and minds of Nigerians through his music, and 30 to 40 years later, his music still resonates in an almost prophetic way.
Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” was made into a mini-series in the 80s (a new take on it would be awesome) and Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” made into a feature film, but they are just 2 narratives of Nigeria. There are so many stories to be told, and while Nollywood has already done part of this job, there’s much more to be done.
Hollywood sold America to the world as the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. They sold the world on the patriotism and nobility of their military; the efficiency and effectiveness of their intelligence agencies. It’s the land where anyone could make it, if they worked hard enough. The greatest country in the world. Whether that is true or not, it’s the narrative most of us living on this side of the world have gotten from Hollywood cinema, creating a desire to visit, attend school and live in the U.S of A, even though there are better options with a less visible narrative.
Nigerian and other filmmakers from the continent need to change the narrative, to shape it, mold it into a multi-threaded story with layers, with all the intricacies andcomplexity it contains. Dispel the wrong archetypes and stereotypes; or Oxfam, Fox News and Hollywood will keep pushing their single story.