Essayist Reflects on Africa’s Place in the Movie Theaters

January 17, 2007 at 6:50 PM EDT

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: Tarzan, he was one of my heroes when I was a child. But as I grew up, I put aside childish things.

At some point, as I cheered the hero in the foreground of Africa movies, I began to wonder about all of those Africans in the background. And I began to wonder: Why was I cheering? Tarzan had to go.

The best movies teach us something important about ourselves through stories and characters that we find ourselves caring about. American movies about Africa pose an extra challenge, since Americans have not always cared about Africa.

We love Bogart and Hepburn in “The African Queen,” but it’s not about Africa. It’s about the charming clash between a strait-laced missionary and a gin-swilling riverboat captain as they try to sink a German warship.

HUMPHREY BOGART, Actor: Oh, Miss, oh, have pity, Miss!

CLARENCE PAGE: Africa is only a convenient backdrop for the war and the offbeat romance.

Africa plays a more central role when Meryl Streep and Robert Redford get busy in “Out of Africa.” But, as “Out of Africa” came into theaters in 1985, a new curiosity about Africa was awakened by the anti-apartheid movement and the real-life heroism of Nelson Mandela.

Hollywood responded in 1987 with Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington in “Cry Freedom,” the story of South African journalist Donald Woods and slain black activist Steve Biko. A truly moving motion picture, even if it was focused a bit less on Biko’s fight for freedom than on Woods’ inner conflicts at the sunset of white privilege.

DENZEL WASHINGTON, Actor: I just think that a white liberal who clings to all the advantages of his white world — jobs, housing, education, Mercedes — is perhaps not the person best qualified to tell blacks how they should react to apartheid.

KEVIN KLINE, Actor: I wonder what sort of liberal you would make, Mr. Biko, if you were the one who had the job, the house, and the Mercedes, and the whites lived in townships.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: It’s a charming idea. It was good of you to come, Mr. Woods.

CLARENCE PAGE: In the new century, Hollywood has raised the curtain on another Africa, a mirror of our post-Cold War and post-9/11 anxieties. The battle of Mogadishu gave us “Black Hawk Down,” a faithful reenactment of tragic American heroes, but little time left to meet the Somalis who are shooting at them or even to learn why Americans were there in the first place.

ACTOR: We’ve got a Black Hawk down…

CLARENCE PAGE: In Hollywood’s Africa, as in real life, the new bad guys are corporate exploitation and greedy warlords. In “The Constant Gardener,” Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes take on a global pharmaceutical industry.

In “Blood Diamond,” Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou take on a corrupt diamond trade. In each case, the African characters are sometimes good, sometimes evil, always predictable.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO, Actor: Then makes us partners!

DJIMON HOUNSOU, Actor: I am not your partner!

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: What if I helped you find your family?

DJIMON HOUNSOU: What do you know of my family?

CLARENCE PAGE: With more independent films getting made these days, more filmmakers are willing to take a chance. Still, there’s a movie shorthand about Africa that typecasts the continent as a wild, untamed place, dancing out there on the edge of civilization, an inviting canvas for our imaginations.

And it makes you wonder, when will we begin to see African characters as complicated and inner-conflicted as we allow American characters to be?

FILM NARRATOR: One day, something fell from the sky.

CLARENCE PAGE: Some of them appear in Africa’s own growing film industry, although few African productions ever make it to the states. Sometimes we get a minor classic like “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” Or, if you really want to know why someone like Steve Biko becomes a revolutionary, catch “Catch a Fire.”

ACTOR: Where do you get the money for this nice car and that nice camera?

ACTOR: Because I work. I have a job.

ACTOR: Let’s search him.


CLARENCE PAGE: One American, Don Cheadle, gets it right in “Hotel Rwanda.” You care about him. Like “Schindler’s List,” his story is drawn from real life and makes you ask the eternal question: If risking your life and maybe your family, too, could save dozens of other people’s lives, would you do it?

If the best movies tell us something about ourselves, we’re only beginning to hear what Africa can tell us about us.

I’m Clarence Page.