A people determined to tell their own stories

A people determined to tell their own stories

It was Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist, who once said:

Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

This statement, made by the late Booker Prize winner during a 1994 interview in the Paris Review, stresses the importance of owning the narrative and places the onus on people of any race or culture to seize the initiative and tell their own stories; otherwise they would have strangers, who are not privy to the facts, churning out distorted narratives.

For many decades, Africans and indeed people of colour were faced with this problem: they watched in horror and dismay as the white-controlled film industry made movies that not only reinforced negative stereotypes, but also peddled falsehoods as fact and portrayed black people as savages that needed to be trained to act civilised.

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Movies like 1965’s “Naked Prey” and the infamous “Birth of a Nation” (made in 1915) are a few examples of how people can manipulate perceptions of a race when they have the power and financial means to.

Even in recent history, there have been movies that have unwittingly advanced the white saviour complex. 2002’s “Tears of the Sun” (which starred Bruce Willis) tells the story of a U.S soldier who goes into Nigeria to save innocent children from rebel forces during a war. The film reeked of poor research, and deservedly, was panned by critics.

It would be fair to admit, though, that times have changed. The narratives are changing, and African stories are now being told in more ingenious ways. Djimon Hounsou and Leonardo Di Caprio lit up global screens in 2006’s “Blood Diamonds” (based on Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war), Gavin Hood earned critical acclaim for the 2005 movie adaptation of Athol Fugard’s novel “Tsotsi”, and Lupita Nyong’o shone brightly in 2013’s “12 Years A Slave”, a movie based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave memoir of the same time.

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There is a lot more authenticity as well as nuance in the making of these films, and those involved now show that they care enough about telling these stories well.

It would be difficult not to acknowledge Abraham Attah’s portrayal of Agu in 2015’s “Beasts of No Nation” or Nyong’o’s portrayal of Harriet in 2016’s “Queen of Katwe”, the latter directed by Mira Nair and based on real-life conditions of one of the slums in Uganda’s capital city.

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There are still debates on the kinds of stories being told, and how themes like slavery and racism keep being “glamorised” in film, but at least Africans are telling their stories now, and that is a major step forward.

There is also the small matter of who gets to interpret roles in these films: months ago a few Nigerian actors screamed blue murder when it was revealed that Nyong’o would be working on a picture adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah.

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A lot of work still needs to be done in pushing African storytelling, but for now, progress should be acknowledged and celebrated.


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