In February, a reporter for DIY, a London based culture and style magazine, sat down at a press junket with Denzel Washington, star and executive producer of the big budget spy thriller ‘Safe House’ (the film came out on DVD this week). Over the course of the interview, the reporter asked Washington how involved he had been in choosing the films shooting location and setting—Cape Town, South Africa. The actor answered, “None. I think it was originally supposed to be Buenos Aires? Rio! … Daniel [Espinosa, the director] went to South Africa, and he liked South Africa, and that was it. I think it was the right choice. I think just practically, aside from the look and all that, for my character’s perspective, it was going to be easier for me to blend in, in a “black” country than in a “brown” country.”
As a friend and I exited the theater on 19th Street in Manhattan back in February after seeing ‘Safe House’, which co-stars Ryan Reynolds, we discussed the discontinuity in what the American audiences think of as Africa and South Africa in particular—what was largely displayed on screen was anything but South Africa. Instead, the Cape Town of the film, where most of the action takes place, has a generic diversity to it. It resembled something closer to a side of an unnamed North African or Middle Eastern city. Other scenes suggested that bits of Rio, Istanbul and Cairo had been cut and pasted together to create a completely new city.
Filmed in the vein of the ‘Bourne’ movies, the director’s camera movements simulate the violence they portray, this along with the close-up fight scenes aid the overall feel of the story as a gritty spy thriller; Washington, a supposedly traitorous CIA agent plays a game of cat and mouse with Reynolds as the under-experienced, good-guy agent. Though certainly a better-than-average action movie, some reviewers were critical of Espinosa’s style, which is notorious for making terrible use of locations; ‘Safe House’ was certainly no exception. “Espinosa’s shaky, kinetic camera is a familiar action movie trope by now, but rarely has it been accompanied by such a lack of geography,” explains Katey Rich on CinemaBlend.
Early on in the film, Washington, fleeing from unnamed bad guys—of Middle Eastern descent, another recognizable Western trope—runs into a crowd of protesters (with placards demanding jobs), but they are anything but the conceptualized black countrymen the actor makes reference to. Surrounded by the young and overwhelmingly white assembly, this looked more like a scene from an early Occupy Wall Street event, since unemployment is hardly a problem for young white people in South Africa. And Washington is far from blending—with his ragged Cornel West hair, standing a few inches taller than everyone around him, Washington stands out like a sore thumb.
But we should not be surprised at these casting decisions.
AIAC has posted previously about the transformation of Cape Town into a fictional landscape, able to play the role of such locations as modern day Seattle, Civil War era Gettysburg, and L.A. circa 1930. Sean wrote back in January that not surprisingly the booming international film industry growing in Cape Town contributes “to the racial political economy of the city. There’s lots of work for mostly local and expatriate whites as actors, models and extras in front of cameras. Blacks, with few exceptions, it seems do lots of the heavy labor in the industry.”
When Washington finally meets black people, he travels to Langa, a black “township” just outside the old city center, to meet a go-to man—who can get you everything from fake IDs to copies of hacked government databases—in order to obtain a fake passport. Apart from the strange plotline of a Salvadoran hacker living in a black township in Cape Town with unlimited internet access—any visitor to South Africa will point out the dismal internet situation there, despite all the hype—said black township is depicted as just one vast slum.
The majority of audiences rarely see past guise of set dressing into the political and racial implications of not only the film but also of the film industry itself. Western audiences remain content with Hollywood’s constructed perceptions of both countries and cultures outside of their own, when in reality the differences stick out almost as much as Denzel Washington in a “brown” country.