When I first came to study in the US in the mid-1990s (at Northwestern University in the American Midwest), I was quite enamored by American television. Of course that quickly wore off. But one of the programs that stuck with me, was a weekly film program, “Siskel and Ebert,” presented by the city’s two foremost film critics. You had to be around then to know how big and influential this program was in determining popular taste about new films; it was described last week as “one of the most powerful programs in television history.” Gene Siskel died of cancer in 1999, but Roger Ebert would soldier on and in the process established himself as probably the foremost film critic in the United States until his death last week. He also managed to adjust well to the rapid changes to the media industry in the last 2 decades or so, building one of the best “personal brands” in the process. There are other film critics who are intellectual–like Stuart Klawans at The Nation, Armond White (he was good once) and Stanley Kaufmann at The New Republic–but they lacked Ebert’s accessibility and heart. (Ebert, by the way, had an acute sense of the racial political economy in US cinema, as Richard Prince blogged at The Root). Ebert, who traveled to Apartheid South Africa as a young man, also reviewed a lot of African films.

Yes, he did not always get it right. For example, in a review of “District 9,” he said a large number of South Africans spoke Bantu and said nothing of the film’s portrayal of Nigerians. He also loved “Out of Africa”, as well as “Invictus.” But we’ll forgive him those. So here, in honor of Ebert, are excerpts from some of his reviews of African films or films with African themes (with a hyperlink to the original).

In 1967 on “Africa Addio,” a terrible Italian film composed of staged scenes of African brutality and incompetence:

“Africa Addio” is a brutal, dishonest, racist film. It slanders a continent and at the same time diminishes the human spirit. And it does so to entertain us … interior evidence in the film itself suggests that many of the scenes are phony. One dubious scene shows white Boers purportedly leaving Kenya in cattle-drawn wagons for the long trek back to the Cape. “A freedom march in reverse,” the narrator explains. “These Boers settled Kenya generations ago, but have been driven from their own country.” In fact, cattle-drawn wagons are no longer in general use in Africa, as Jacopetti and Prosperi undoubtedly knew. Real Boers (there are a few among the mostly British white population in Kenya) would probably call up a moving van for their furniture and then fly down to the Cape.

Ebert had first encountered the films of Ousmane Sembene in 1969 and was not impressed by Sembene’s early offerings (“Borom Sarrett” and “Black Girl”). Later, however, he would say about another Sembene film, “Guelwaar,” in 1994:

Moviegoers have little curiosity. Most of them will never have seen a film about Africans, by Africans, in modern Africa, shot on location. They see no need to start now (and this indifference extends, of course, to African-Americans). Movies can show us worlds and societies we will never otherwise glimpse, but most of the time we prefer to watch slick fictions with lots of laughs and action … (I)t is a joy to listen to the dialogue, in which intelligent people seriously discuss important matters; not one Hollywood film in a dozen allows its characters to seem so in control of what they think and say … (Sembene) reminds me that movies can be an instrument of understanding, and need not always pander to what is cheapest and most superficial.

Later, writing in 2007, on Sembene’s last film “Moolade,” a drama about female genital mutilation:

“Moolaade” is the kind of film that can only be made by a director whose heart is in harmony with his mind. It is a film of politics and anger, and also a film of beauty, humor, and a deep affection for human nature. Usually films about controversial issues are tilted too far toward rage or tear-jerking. Ousmane Sembene, who made this film when he was 81, must have lived enough, suffered enough and laughed enough to find the wisdom of age. I remember him sitting in the little lobby of the Hotel Splendid in Cannes, puffing contentedly on a Sherlock Holmes pipe that was rather a contrast with his bright, flowing Senegalese garb … Sembene’s work so often dealt with his society from the inside, with sympathy, insight, and the sly wit of a Bernard Shaw. He made political films that didn’t seem political, and comedies that were very serious. His regret was that many of his films, including “Moolaade,” were not welcome in Africa. He won awards at Venice, Karlovy Vary and many other important festivals; “Moolaade” won first place in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes. But … the film has played nowhere in Africa except Morocco. The message is not heard where it is needed.

In 1987, while he encouraged people to see “Cry Freedom,” Richard Attenborough’s film about the relationship between the South African activist Steve Biko and the white newspaper editor Donald Woods, Ebert opened his review of the film thus:

“Cry Freedom” begins with the story of a friendship between a white liberal South African editor and an idealistic young black leader who later dies at the hands of the South African police. But the black leader is dead and buried by the movie’s halfway point, and the rest of the story centers on the editor’s desire to escape South Africa and publish a book. You know there is something wrong with the premise of this movie when you see that the actress who plays the editor’s wife is billed above the actor who plays the black leader. This movie promises to be an honest account of the turmoil in South Africa but turns into a routine cliff-hanger about the editor’s flight across the border. It’s sort of a liberal yuppie version of that Disney movie where the brave East German family builds a hot-air balloon and floats to freedom. The problem with this movie is similar to the dilemma in South Africa: Whites occupy the foreground and establish the terms of the discussion, while the 80 percent non-white majority remains a shadowy, half-seen presence in the background.

On “Mugabe and the White African” (reviewed by Ebert in 2010), a film about Mike Campbell, a white farmer, suing the Zimbabwean government over his expropriated farm:

… It seems to me that Campbell has a good case here–good enough, anyway, to convince the judges on the African court. One could understand the government buying his farm at a fair price under eminent domain and installing an African staff to manage it. Mugabe pays pitiful sums and his political cronies, not interested in farming, loot their new properties and deprive the resident laborers of their livelihood. Zimbabwe, which was one of the most prosperous lands in Africa, today has 80 percent unemployment and widespread disease and starvation. That being said, “Mugabe and the White African” could certainly have looked more deeply. The filmmakers travel to Kent in England to speak with the family of Campbell’s son-in-law, but never have any meaningful conversations with the African workers on Campbell’s farm. They support him, fight for him, are beaten by Mugabe’s thugs for their efforts. What do they think? Possibly their understanding of the situation is less theoretical than ours, and they don’t see how they can feed their families without stable employment.

Btw, the film was panned by one of our bloggers.

On “A Good Man in Africa,” a 1994 film revolving around a British diplomat set in a fictional African country and starring Sean Connery and Louis Gossett Jnr:

This plot, and the attitudes that underlie it, remind me of the patronizing tone of novels set in Africa 50 years ago, about colorful colonials and backward natives. The movie is not overtly racist (although the movie’s press book says Dr. Murray “may be the only good man in Africa,” which is a statement that grows more curious the more you think about it). But there is an unpleasant undertone.

And, finally, here is Ebert on “The Interpreter,” a thriller starring Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman set in another fictitious African country, probably Zimbabwe (Kidman plays an interpreter at the UN originally from that fictitious state):

I don’t want to get Politically Correct, I know there are many white Africans, and I admire Kidman’s performance. But I couldn’t help wondering why her character had to be white. I imagined someone like Angela Bassett in the role, and wondered how that would have played. If you see the movie, run that through your mind.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.