While reviewing this week’s film, Out of Africa (1985), for our series Africa on Film, I wondered what I would write about. Many people have bones to pick with this film but I was unable to distinguish what they were. The grandiose sets of colonial Kenya in the early part of the 20th century are pleasing to the eye, and Meryl Streep’s performance as Dutch Baroness, Karen Blixen, is on point. Having reached the end of the film the second time, I realized that it is precisely the film’s elegant costumes, elaborate sets, and sweeping landscape shots that are problematic.

If you haven’t seen Out of Africa, get a sense of it from the trailer below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1a8Y0IbK42k

This film’s artful take on the colonial past masks the ugly realities of colonialism. Out of Africa claims some sort of progressive politics on racial and cultural domination by way of its leading white couple, Robert Redford and Streep, but the colonial framework is still very much present.

Redford plays Denys Finch Hatton, a nature-loving, big game hunter who has a sensitive way of understanding the natives and the land (the ideologies that this wanderlust character represents could be written about for pages). With his Masai companion, Hatton leads the audience through Africa’s beautiful untouched bush.

As our guide, Hatton acts as the lens through which Western audiences view colonial Kenya. As long as he is friendly with the natives and respects the land, we don’t have to acknowledge what colonialism really was. The sweeping African landscape seen from the point-of-view of Hatton’s airplane in particular provides a buffer between audiences and colonial realities.

Streep’s character celebrates early feminism. She is proud and knows how to take care of herself alone on her farm (the portrayal of her independence contradicts with the natives she has helping her). Blixen is beautiful, dresses well, and still knows how to shoot a lion.

This woman is a spectacle of all the unrealized dreams of the American woman.

This representation of womanhood is the central reason that I could not see what was wrong with this film. The nostalgia her character creates for a time when an elegant, strong white woman could run a farm in Africa covers up the ugliness of that idea. It undermines key colonial truths, like the fact that her “strength,” or privilege, relies on the colonial order.

Hatton’s sensitivity and Blixen’s feminism, combined with gorgeous cinematography and beautiful sets, creates an “emotional and logical blockage” (to quote a friend of mine) between audiences and colonialism. Glossed, blocked, masked, or covered up, Out of Africa is a nostalgia piece for a time when whites ruled in Africa.

– Allison Swank

Further Reading

A city divided

Ethnic enclaves are not unusual in many cities and towns across Sudan, but in Port Sudan, this polarized structure instigated and facilitated communal violence.

The imperial forest

Gregg Mitman’s ‘Empire of Rubber’ is less a historical reading of Liberia than a history of America and racial capitalism through the lens of a US corporate giant.

Africa’s next great war

The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.

The Cape Colony

The campaign to separate South Africa’s Western Cape from the rest of the country is not only a symptom of white privilege, but also of the myth that the province is better run.

Between East Africa and the Gulf

Political encounters between the Arab Gulf and Africa span centuries. Mahmud Traouri’s novel ‘Maymuna’ demonstrates the significant role of a woman’s journey from East Africa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Āfrīqāyī

It’s not common knowledge that there is Iran in Africa and there is Africa in Iran. But there are commonplace signs of this connection.

It could happen to us

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries, but let’s hope their own increasing vulnerability instills greater solidarity.