Africa: A Grand Setting for the Movies

For the longest time, we’ve been visiting various Pacific and Asian beach resorts with the hopes of running into one of those Japanese bikini idols. Actually since it never happened, meeting Ms Bikini-san, I’m usually just content to get away from it all for a few weeks in the tropics.

Bangtao Beach, Phuket, Thailand

Bangtao Beach, Phuket, Thailand

We’ve been to locations from Phuket in Thailand to Palau, from The Philippines (Cebu) to Pattaya, and with assorted stops in Saipan, Guam, Bali, Hawaii, Okinawa, Cairns, and even Vietnam. We’ve discussed Art in Asia and Europe. We’ve talked about our favorite films, and some of our own travel destinations.

But you know which place hasn’t gotten any coverage in my columns? Africa is the answer. I’ve not set foot in the place. I mean none of it.  But lots of the world’s best film makers have. So….

… for today’s discussion let’s look at some recent and some not so recent movies set in and or about Africa. Let’s begin with a trio of recent titles. First will be Blood Diamond (2006) which was directed by Edward Zwick. Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio as smuggler/adventurer Danny Archer,Jennifer Connelly as journalist Maddy Bowen, and Djimon Hounsou as Solomon Vandy, who found the diamond, is a thrilling tale of adventure and survival and a provocative thought-piece on conflict diamonds .

The opening title cards flash by:

Sierra Leone, 1999
Civil War rages for control of the diamond fields
Thousands have died and millions have become refugees
None of whom has ever seen a diamond.

Our three leads buck the odds in a race of survival. This picture isn’t so much about pretty images as opposed to a powerful story. With 5 Oscar nominations to its credit, it is very well worth your time and effort to see this movie.

Hotel Rwanda (2004), like Blood Diamond is about troubled times. Set in Rwanda in 1994, against a background of the genocide conducted by the Hutus against the Tutsi, a conflict which inflamed the country and left a million dead. One of the tag lines from the movie was:

When the world closed its eyes, he opened his arms

Don Cheadle, playing real life hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, performed what can be best described as assuming the role of an Oskar Schindler, as he safely housed over 1200 refugees at the hotel, as the war raged around him. You will also note that Nick Nolte and Joaquin Phoenix round out the cast.

Our 3rd recent movie about Africa is Catch a Fire (2006). Set in the 1980’s in South Africa, a good man Patrick Chamusso played by American Derek Luke is accused of being a terrorist by the authorities, headed by Tim Robbins as the savage Inspector Nic Vos.

The Spark that Ignites Us, Unites Us

This film was marketed with an excellent tag-line (above). While it cannot be considered a box-office winner, I find that this movie was well meant and thoughtful.

Now let’s turn back the time machine. Cry the Beloved Country (1995) was before anything else a novel. Written by Alan Paton in 1948, South Africa at that time was putting its system of apartheid into place. Paton was one of the first voices to speak against this social injustice. The novel was first made into a movie in 1951 and starred Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee.

This 1995 remake starred James Earl Jones and Richard Harris in the story of two fathers; one a poor black minister and the other a well-to-do and powerful white settler. Both of these fathers faced the certainty that apartheid was the contributory factor that brought each of them to the worst news any parent wants to hear – the loss of a child.

At the halfway point of this article, let’s introduce A Dry White Season.This 1989 movie was adapted from the novel of the same name by author Andre BrinkDonald Sutherland portrays a South African school teacher, Ben du Toit, who considered himself insulated and separate from the often shocking system of apartheid. When his gardener’s son is picked up in a student demonstration in Soweto by the police, and treated brutally, followed by the disappearance of the gardener too, Ben feels he must take some action.

What Ben did not realize that by taking this public and opposing position, this would leave him alienated from his friends, his colleagues, and even his own family. Marlon Brando (above) does a turn as a lawyer hired by Ben. Susan Sarandon and Jurgen Prochnow (standing in the witness box above) round out the cast in this powerful story whose theme is: One cannot be free until all are free.

Continuing with the topic of apartheid, let’s have a look at one of the better films. Richard Attenborough directed the 1987 film Cry Freedom which starred Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington. This movie used as its source the real life stories of Donald Woods and Steve Biko.

Biko was an anti-apartheid activist and Woods was a Capetown editor who eventually brought his story to the rest of the world. Biko’s protests ultimately brought him death, and Woods and family had to leave their life in their home country to flee to England in order to publish the book.

While life in South Africa under apartheid was not fully realized in this film, nor was the film really about Biko’s efforts, or about the black perspective, it is still a moving story, and was considered a prestigious movie.

Dian Fossey was a naturalist and an anthropologist who studied the rare mountain gorillas. Her story brought to film in 1988 was called Gorillas in the MistSigourney Weaver did not fight the Alien in this film. Instead she took on poachers and animal traders as Dian. The tag line of the movie was,

At the far ends of the earth she found a reason to live,

and a cause to fight for.

The film actually had Weaver as the star ably supported by Bryan Brown. But also starring were the gorillas themselves and the Rwanda locations. You’ll never forget this story of passion and obsession.

Our last film for this article was the most successful of this bunch. Directed by Sidney Pollack, Out of Africa was released on December 18, 1985. It garnered 7 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Direction, and Best Screenplay.  Meryl Streep, portraying Baroness Karen Blixen, was nominated for Best Actress.

This film was made from Blixen’s book, Out of Africa, written under her pseudonym, Isak Dinensen. The story is best described by this quote from film critic Roger Ebert’s review:

What we have here is an old-fashioned,
intelligent, thoughtful love story,
told with enough care and attention
that we really get involved in the
passions among the characters.

Karen Blixen left Denmark to marry her ex-lover’s brother in what was then called British East Africa. The time was 1915 just ahead of World War I. Today this country is known as Kenya. And it is a beautiful place. In fact, the land is so wonderfully filmed, that the images of Kenya, shown from the air, create an indelible image for the viewer.

Dinesen’s words also resonate. The book opens with:

I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills…

And what of this memorable passage from the book articulated by Streep as Blixen:

If I know a song of Africa,
of the giraffe and the African
new moon lying on her back,
of the plows in the fields
and the sweaty faces of the
coffee pickers…
does Africa know a song of me?


It is no wonder that this film swept the Oscars. The lovely words, the fine acting and direction, the stunning images of East Africa itself make this a truly memorable movie.

And there you have it. Africa on screen for your perusal. Africa has been called the Dark Continent; it is both mysterious and magnificent. It’s issues and it’s glories will both amaze you as well as make you hopping mad. But those are just the inspirations you need to get you started.

I hope I’ve pointed you in the right direction so you may begin your cinematic travels to Africa. And I hope you’ve enjoyed this column. When you do watch these films, at a time of your own choosing and depending on what is available at your local DVD rental outlet, I’m sure you will remember reading about them here. Of course you can always stop by our website, The Arts, whenever you want. We have no borders. No need for a visa – a computer connected to the internet is all you need.

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