By Wendy Okoi-Obuli | Shadow and Act February 21, 2013 at 5:20PM
The subtitle on the headline banner of this site reads "Covering Cinema of the African Diaspora." I'd be inclined to reword it "Covering Cinema of and about the African Diaspora" as, sadly, it's obvious from a lot of the content on this site that the most pervading images of people of Africa and the diaspora are still very much in the hands of people from outside of the diaspora.
It's not that images of black people aren't getting made by black people, it's just that, for whatever reasons, they're not getting seen as widely as those made by non African indigenes or of African descent and, where they are, these black helmers don't seem to have much freedom of creative, financial or even ideological control and so usually fall within a rather narrow range of expression which might imply a rather limited agenda on the part of those who do wield any such control over these projects.
From the inception of the moving image to date, it's interesting how this power has been wielded. Over the years, whether as outright scare-mongering against black people as in the much acclaimed Birth Of A Nation and the slightly less overt but no less insidious Tarzan movies; or allegorically, as in any of the King Kong movies, the image of black people in movies which, by and large, were not made for or by black people, has firmly made the default image of black people, regardless of their place of birth, as being one of violence, savagery, licentiousness and depravity in the collective consciousness.
Of course, when not reigning terror on the lives of "normal" people, the black person is often safely relegated to prominent yet undermining secondary roles of often highly entertaining but "harmless", shiftless, backward and less than childishly ignorant; or equally harmless but overly eager servant or noble savage, whose only existence seems to be to further the cause of the good people of polite (white) society.
It almost stands to reason then, that even in today's society, black people are either seen as somewhere in between one or other of these types of black person. Let's face it, even black people have bought into the imagery, where Africans are... well, African, and all that implies, and where if you're not African but aren't considered black enough (cool, hard, street, whatever...), you're seen as an uncle Tom, Oreo, Coconut... Heaven forbid we just be. Of course, Africa and its diaspora aren't the only victims to this kind of slanted celluloid imagery - Asian, Middle Eastern, South and Central American, hey, even various white European ethnic groups, have been coloured (no pun intended) in the collective mind by narrow representation on film.
Sadly, the manipulation of the image of Africans is still very much alive and well. In today's reality TV mad era, it's no surprise that the use of Africans as backdrop and entertainment has been updated to fit the times. Well, "updated" may be the wrong word if reports of the once Swedish TV show, The Great Journey is anything to go by.
According to an article in Variety:
"The Great Journey," produced by Eyeworks Sweden for pubcaster SVT, follows three Swedish families living what is described as "extremely primitive tribal life" with minority groups in Namibia, Vanuatu and Indonesia.
The show came under fire for its portrayal of Namibia's indigenous Himba people and for using "stereotypes reminiscent of colonial times" in marketing the show.
Nothing new, eh? So what if a small tribe of Africans gets portrayed in a less than dignified light...? I mean, they probably are quite primitive, really, so what's the problem, right?
Well, the most interesting thing about this story is not such much that the TV show was accused of exploitation and a lack of respect by rights organisations, but that the producers of the show have paid reparations to Namibia's Himba people for their stereotypical imagery as well as their lack of payment for their participation in the show!
According to a joint statement from the Legal Assistance Center-Namibia and Africa Groups of Sweden, the show was "permeated by a lack of respect" that violated the United Nations Declaration of 2007 on the Rights of Indigenous People."
Wow, now there's a turn up for the books! I didn't even know there was a UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people! Does this mean "third world" countries unfairly stereotypically depicted in film, especially by "outsiders" may wield more power than they realise?
In recent memory, Sony had to change the wording in an advert for one of its Playstation games, following complaint from the Nigerian government; and the same Nigerian government expressed a desire to ban the popular sci- fi movie, District 9, due to its depiction of Nigerians in that movie (supposedly an allegorical tale in which a real group of people are stereotypically represented rather than allegorically, and which uses real Nigerian names to boot), so at least one African nation has decided to take a stand against this age old yet still very prevalent means of cultural slander.
In my online search for more detail about the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People I found this on Wikipedia:
The Declaration sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues. It also "emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions, and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations". It "prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples", and it "promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them and their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development"
Apparently it's not a legally binding instrument under international law but, according to a UN press release, it does "represent the dynamic development of international legal norms and it reflects the commitment of the UNs member states to move in certain directions".
Over 22 years in the making, interestingly, the adoption of the Declaration, which was voted on on 13 September 2007, was voted against by four member states: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.
Although since then, all four countries have moved to endorse the declaration. The USA specifically didn't sign it until 2010, under the reign of it's first president of color, Barack Obama.
The declaration wasn't specifically set in place to counter negative or disrespectful cultural representation, and it obviously hasn't had much impact in its two years in existence in this respect. However, I'd like to think that there will be more instances of indigenous people at least standing up to speak out against cultural misrepresentation and misappropriation and hopefully force creative industries to come up with a more truly creative and insightful look at the human experience, no matter what hue it comes in, rather than just pandering to existing prejudices by utilising lazy stereotypes that only serve to further alienate us from each other.
In the meantime, well done those Himbas, or at least the organisation(s) that spoke up on their behalf!