“We are all Africans really” said Meryl Streep when she was questioned why the Berlin Film Festival had appointed an all-white jury.
In the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which has seen some actors pledge to boycott the awards, Streep’s comment plunged the actress into a debate about the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
At best, Streep’s comment was an attempt to show solidarity. But what she unwittingly also underlined was the absence of Africans and African film-making in mainstream cinema.
If we really are all Africans, and if we are going to take black film-making more seriously, why are we not watching African films?
Racism is a charge that could be levelled at cinema from its inception. Film professor Robert Stam says that of all the conditions that attended cinema’s birth, “it is cinema’s coincidence with imperialism that has been least studied”.
Many films made in the early 20th century whitewashed black narratives and characters, and justified white violence against people of colour as righteous.
DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, set during the American civil war, glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. Instead of being condemned, the film was hailed as a “masterpiece” for its pioneering film techniques.
While Griffith has been canonised, black and African filmmakers have struggled to get their work featured at international festivals, or picked up by distributors and exhibitors, even after the strides achieved by the civil rights and independence movements.
A good example is the representation of African films at Cannes, the most prestigious international film festival.
Since Cannes began in 1946, a mere 3% of the films in competition have been African. From 1946 to 2013, only 14 African films won prizes. Only one African film – Chronicle of the Year of Embers (1975) – has ever won the Palme d’Or.
The decision to give it the award was so contentious that the jury members and film-makers received death threats, and required police protection as they were leaving the Palais des Festivals.
This is because the film dared to tell a story about the Algerian War of Independence from the Algerian, rather than French, perspective. Although the “father of African cinema”, Ousmane Sembene, was invited to be a Cannes jury member as early as 1967, few people of colour have since been welcomed into this inner circle.
In contrast, films that use Africa as a backdrop for white adventure narratives are still widely screened globally – such as Out of Africa (1985), starring Streep herself, which won seven Oscars and grossed more than $100m worldwide.
‘If Hollywood refuses to change itself, why do we even give it the time of day?’
The answer encompasses racism but also goes beyond it. It has to do with the perception that African and black films will not attract audiences.
When he set out to make a film about the revolutionary slave Nat Turner, film-maker Nate Parker was told that such a film would not succeed because “movies with black leads don’t play internationally”.
A few weeks ago, Turner’s film – purposefully titled Birth of a Nation – secured the most lucrative distribution deal ever recorded at the Sundance Film Festival:$17.5m from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
The film was also included in a rich programme of black and African films screened at the 2016 Pan-African film festival of Los Angeles.
There are signs that the industry is transforming. Franklin Leonard’s The Blacklisthas helped to catapult screenwriters of colour into the limelight; the Toronto International Film Festival’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey, is an African film specialist whose connection with the continent’s film production goes back 25 years.
Selma director Ava DuVernay has also recently started a film distribution company, Array, through which she is supporting African films such as Ayanda (2015).
But it is the internet – the new frontier of film distribution – that will be the real yardstick of change. There are some promising signs here, too, with the recent arrival of African video-on-demand platforms such as AfricaFilms.tv, buni.tv, and iroko.tv.
It is not simply an issue of black lead actors, though. It is a sobering fact that the film about Africa that has performed best on Netflix is Beasts of No Nation, a child soldier movie that rehashes stereotypes of an endemically violent continent.
We need more diverse narratives about Africa – the ones in films like Sex, Okra and Salted Butter (2008), Pumzi (2009) and Love the One You Love (2015).
And it is not just up to the film industry. As individuals we can make a difference through the films we choose to see. We need to vote with our cinema tickets and our internet clicks. And if Hollywood refuses to change itself, why do we even give it the time of day?
Culled from the Guardian
A version of this article first appeared on The Conversation Africa