A new supernatural period drama is coming to Showtime next month (May) titled Penny Dreadful (named after a type of 19th century British fiction publication that usually featured sensational stories).
In the series, some of literature’s most famous characters — including Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and iconic figures from the Dracula universe — are reimagined in a new light as they become embroiled in all sorts of spooky drama set in Victorian London.
The 8-episode series also stars Josh Hartnett, Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Rory Kinnear, Billie Piper and, of most interest to this blog for obvious reasons, Danny Sapani, who plays a character named Sembene, who is described as:
... an African man with ritual face scarring who serves as Sir Malcolm's sentry and confidant. He has an air of mystery about him and his heroic efforts will prove invaluable to Sir Malcolm in his personal quest.
Always sensitive to the portrayals of Africans in American TV and film projects, I'm a little concerned with what the network has revealed thus far about the character. First, we aren't told exactly what country in Africa he's from. The generic "an African man" is typical, likely out of laziness on the part of the series creators. It's probably easier for them if they don't have to get too specific about his origins. Less research I suppose. So he's "an African man" (forget the fact that there are over 50 different countries, each with their own histories, traditions and customs, etc) - one with ritual face scarring of course, but we don't know where the so-called ritual originates. But even worse is the below character summary video for Sembene (my guess is that the name may have been inspired by late Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene - certainly one of continental Africa's most notable directors, known internationally), in which he says mysterious things like: "Where I come from, we know some people cannot be saved." If only we know where exactly he comes from. Oh yeah, he's "an African Man." And even worse is the description of Africa as "the dark continent," a colonial term - Africa through western eyes.
Yes, I know, it's a period piece; it's set in a time when that is how Africa was seen by Europeans (where the series is set - in London specifically), so maybe these ultimately limited descriptions of the Sembene character, as well as the antiquated, and offensive labeling of Africa, are all in an effort to maintain some authenticity, keeping with the spirit of the times? Or am I giving the creators of the series too much credit?
Still, even if that were indeed the case, it's 2014! Isn't it time for some fresh, forward thinking within the minds of those who are in positions to bring these characters to life on screen, instead of simply continuing with trite trends, which I suppose is much easier for them?
And I can only assume that the limitations in the character's description are representative of how he is depicted within the series.
I watched the first episode last night (it doesn't debut until May 11, but Showtime made the pilot available online for free yesterday), and Sembene does appear, but just once as I recall, and speaks a few lines. So it's too early to tell how the character will be used in the series, and how involved he will be. But I'll continue to watch, if only because, my sensitivity to Sembene as laid out above aside, I was intrigued enough with the overall program to want to see more of it.
By the way, Sembene is played by Danny Sapani, as I already mentioned - a British actor whose work I can't claim to be familiar with. My research says that he's certainly an accomplished and versatile actor, whose work spans film, television, and theatre. Stateside, audiences might recognize him from Danny Boyle's Trance, most recently, in which he appeared alongside James McAvoy and Rosario Dawson.
His wide-ranging TV credits include Doctor Who, Misfits, Blackout and more.
He is an experienced Shakespearean actor and played Macbeth in an award-winning production directed by Max Stafford Clark. His last leading critically acclaimed performance was in Moon On A Rainbow Shawl at The National Theatre.
So, clearly, the man has the skills - skills that demand that he play something more than the generic "an African man" from "the dark continent," with ritual face scarring. But the man's gotta eat, right? A job is a job. You take what you can get - within reason of course.
Ultimately, my interest here is that the character he plays be 3 dimensional, fully fleshed out, and that he actually is given something meaningful to do, contributing to the series' momentum, and not just be the "mysterious" African whose origins we know nothing about, who is mostly silent, but when he does speak, is cryptic.
Below, watch the character breakdown for Sembene, and underneath, watch the series premiere of Penny Dreadful: