I was about five when I first saw fellow Ghanaians on-screen. They were in a group of stowaways trying to swap Ghana for the promise of the white man’s land. It was to be a scarring experience. My sense of excitement, adventure, and even pride was slowly replaced with horror as I watched most of this group be murdered by the ship’s white crew. The film I refer to is Deadly Voyage (1995), the true story of one Kingsley Ofosu’s attempt to escape poverty in Ghana, his motherland. Despite the small wealth that came with selling his story to Hollywood, Ofosu ended up back in Ghana, the same land he and many others continued to plot and scheme to escape.
At that point in life, growing up in Botswana after birth in the UK, I had barely spent time in Ghana. My dad had faced struggles of his own in the Queen’s backyard and longed for his homeland. It was stunning to my naïve self to see the horrors my countrymen endured just to become second-class citizens in Europe. Why were they leaving the home my dad wanted to return to? Deadly Voyage, while not wholly a product of African cinema, is in conversation with some of Africa’s most iconic films. Like them, it reflects on this question and the failings that force us to dream of better prospects in the lands of those that once oppressed us.
The striking debut feature by the father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembène, La Noire de (Black Girl) (1966), set the tone for this lineage, which would run until Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019). Like Deadly Voyage, Black Girl can be traced to a news story about an African maid in France who died in her employer’s home. Also, like the stowaways in Deadly Voyage or the cocoa beans they hide on or the generations of Africans trafficked during the slave trade, the central character in Black Girl, Diouana, a nanny in Senegal, is a mere commodity. Thinking she would be caring for kids, she is reduced to cooking and cleaning. She never gets to go on her desired shopping trip. The promise of dignity and a cordial relationship with the West was a scam. The promise of decolonization was a scam.
Decolonization ultimately holds little meaning to most Africans. We are too bogged down with bare necessities to properly engage with the varying layers of our relationship with the West. For many, to “Japa” or embrace the “I for lef Ghana” mantra is the only logical response to the enduring hardship and exploitation by our elite and political class. Yes, to seek greener pastures abroad may be to accept second-class citizen status wherever, but it is better than to stay stuck in reverse in a place we call home. At least, that is the argument I think people make to themselves.
Consider the fantasy and nightmare that is Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973). In his debut feature, naïve lovers Mory and Anta embody the enduring disenchantment of our youth. Mory, a cattle herder with seemingly just a motorbike and the clothes on his back to his name, is a deadbeat. Anta is in university but has little faith in education. Her mom calls her school a “clown show.” Their solution to their predicament is to steal and con their way to enough money left for France. This is the path that will doom their relationship. In Touki Bouki’s most fascinating stretch, we get a glimpse of the type of men that would define Africa as we know it today. A group of student revolutionaries slut-shame Anta for not coming to meetings, and moments later, they all but lynch Mory, the kind of man such revolutionaries would purport to fight for.
Though Touki Bouki ultimately makes it clear that Mory and Anta are torn between violent poverty and white supremacists abroad (there is a chilling sequence of casual racism in the film’s coda), it is easy to lose sympathy for the lovers. The fact that people deciding to fully check out of their broken African systems vexes me plays a part. Aside from viewing the West as a utopia, some are also working to fake it until they make it. Thus begins the cycle of the destitute preferring to give off the appearance of wealth by touching the hem of Western society’s garment.
For those who are sucked into making the trip to the West, what price is paid? Mambety’s second feature film, Hyènes (1992), provides some insight. Here, an elderly woman, Ramatou, returns to her hometown after decades in the West. She is described as being “richer than the World Bank” as the joyous community rolls out the welcome wagon. What follows is a barbed allegory about the eroding power of the West’s neoliberal ideals, crystallizing the sense that returnees, coming with their dollars and doped-up purchasing power, become parties to the world order that exploits Africa. We also see a loss of humanity, both figuratively and literally. Ramatou describes herself as more machine than human, with her array of gold prosthetics, and basically demands the soul of the community in exchange for her support. So who drew first blood? As is the trend in these films, African society betrayed Ramatou first and forced her to seek refuge in the West after falling victim to an unforgiving patriarchal system during her youth.
To try to answer this question is to consider the merits (as outlined by scholar Manthia Diawara) of colonial confrontational cinema, which is uncompromising in its jabs at the legacy of European imperialists, and those of social realism, African cinema, which examines the now and future with apprehension as our independence heroes sowed seeds for the underdevelopment of Africa. The father of African cinema’s filmography embodied this tension. Emitai (1971) and Camp De Tharoiye (1988) fire salvos at France, while Xala (1975) and even Moolaadé (2004) are critical of the treachery and brutality of our own kin. Ultimately, the truth is right down the middle, and the heartbreaking reality is our kin will continue to seek easement abroad in the poisonous bosom of the oppressor.
Revisiting some of the finest African films sometimes feels like an act of self-harm. In the best cases, these films are sometimes inspiring calls to resistance. But for the most part, travelling back to Sembène’s vision of Dakar only serves to remind us that the continent has been marking time in a gyre of violent incompetence, oppression, and despair for decades. One film with similar themes does manage to stand out—Atlantics. Mati Diop’s film is a beautiful gift to African cinephiles and is very much in conversation with her uncle’s Touki Bouki in the way it weaves tones, realism, and supernatural this time, producing a painful portrait of contemporary Africa, still rife with inequality and exploitation. Of course, it also features two young lovers ripped apart by the pull of the West.
I call it a gift because instead of the lingering despair and cynicism we get in the likes of Touki Bouki or Black Girl, we are given something unique—closure. It’s something many who lost loved ones to the slave trade or dangerous trips to the West could not give the loved ones they left behind. While Mati Diop displays thoughtfulness and tenderness for people forced to leave Africa, a sense of neglect and betrayal on the part of the people who left lingers. In Touki Bouki, lovers who seemed inseparable abandoned each other. In Black Girl, Diouana could be, somewhat harshly, seen to have abandoned not just her lover but her mother for Europe in what is much more than just familial separation.
The somewhat negative feelings are by design. The vision of African cinema is political to the hilt and is crafted to spark a reaction from viewers. Like Tunisian film critic Taher Cheriaa said, African cinema must be militant cinema. “It shall be first and foremost a cultural action with social and political value, or it will be nothing.”
But Atlantics proves that African cinema can provide solace from our tortured relationship with the West. Mati Diop displays thoughtfulness and tenderness for people forced to leave Africa and calls not just for reform or resistance but an outpouring of love and grace.
Ultimately, the overarching trend feels like it will remain Africa’s portion. As costs of living soar on the continent and governments collapse under their own immorality, we are seeing some of our brightest and also most vulnerable leave the continent to not only the West but the East. A number of our kin take up new nationalities and others suffer fates similar to their ancestors, who were traded as slaves. No matter the circumstance, our cinematic trailblazers have been clear about one thing—Africa ends up suffering for it, one way or the other.