As a black person living in South Africa, I always strive to learn more about our history. Not only as a South African but as a black person overall. Television has been a major contributor to bring knowledge and wisdom to us. In times, it shows us who were and the impact we made.
Every time when Sarafina! is broadcasted, our family gathers around the sitting room and watches the musical. My grandmother who was born in the Apartheid era reminisces over the painful past while we learn of our brutal history. My aunt would ask questions and we would listen to my grandmother’s funny remarks about our history.
Sarafina! is a good film that invokes humour, resent, pain and shock. So it is no doubt that I as a black person would expect every African history film to tell our stories with accuracy.This might be a controversial opinion but white storytellers shouldn’t tell African history stories.
A birth of a Nation is a 1915 film written by Frank Woods and D. W. Griffith focused on the Civil War in America. The film depicts the racial tension with accuracy and is a necessary part of history, which I would have no problem learning from, except that it is racist in itself. The actors in the film are white and use blackface to portray black people. It makes a mockery of our identity.
According to white storytellers blacks back then couldn’t save themselves instead they needed a white superior. The Help, popularly known was written by Kathryn Stockett and screenplay by Tate Taylor who are both white. Although the film was supposed to be about two black maids during the Civil Rights Movement in 1963, the film has the character Skeeter (the house lady) in the forefront. The film even left Viola Davis who played the maid regretting her decision saying, “I just felt at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.” while another actor said that it was, “told through the perspective of a white character and was created by predominantly white storytellers.”
White storytellers or writers’ goal is to entertain when telling the history of blacks especially in America. Selma is another hit film that was written by Paul Webb who is white. The drama film depicts the three marches from Selma highway to Montgomery in 1965 led and initiated by Martin Luther King Jr. and James Bevel. The film’s reception about the inaccuracies were widely met with negative views. Not only did they not care about how inaccurate the film was but also omitted some of the significant individuals who were present during the actual march.
The reason 12 years a Slave – a film based on the 1853 memoir by an African American man kidnapped and sold in 1841, Solomon Northup- was a success (not only commercially) is because of the perspective, Jon Ridley who is a black American was in charge of the screenplay. It doesn’t shy off from telling the brutality of slavery and the racial perspective is from Solomon himself. Very essential, thought provoking, invokes raw emotions and perfectly presents slavery as in the past.
Green Book is yet another film that not only has inaccuracies and white saviour narrative but lack of research. It is focused around a true story of Don Shirley, a Jamaican American pianist’s 1962’s tour and Frank Vallelonga, Don’s employee. The film was a commercial success but no one consulted Jüri Täht – a trio cellist – portrayed by a character named ‘Oleg’ in the film about screening his life and made him of “Russian” nationality instead of Estonian. Not only that but also the relationship between Don Shirley and Frank whom were called “friends” were disregarded by the former’s sister who said that they only had a working relationship.
African History films are not just art they are our stories. We deserve to have our history told; with accuracy, without white saviour narrative, not just as a money making machine, with sufficient research, with black women in the forefront, in our perspective and not just for entertainment purposes.
This piece was written as part of the Fundza Fellowship Programme.