Cinephile Rant:What’s an African Story??

Im a Cinephile, phewwww, there , i said it.  i LOVE movies, there are few other things i love more than a great movie. In addition to that i’m a film maker myself , so talking shop about movies  the  movies i’d love to make,the one’s i wish i had made and the directors i admire is one of my favorite past times and something i often find myself doing when i get with fellow cinephiles.

When i express the desire to make certain genre specific films ,  with  stylized dialogue, pop culture references, every once in a while i’ll get some Afrocentric Malcom X  type that says “As an African, you need to tell ‘African’ stories, tell “our stories/culture”. This has increasingly begun to get me peeved.Why!! Because it presupposes that there is something specific that is an African story.

What exactly is an African story, and why should i be restricted to this? Should creativity or artistic expression be limited to your genetic code, culture or geographical settings? Is an Artist born in France only limited to drawing the Eiffel Tower, Croissants,Stripped shirts and Marie Antoinette. Is a German writer bound to only write about WW2, German engineering, and skinheads????.

It reminds me of a time a friend was mad at MTV Base when it first came out. Mad at their assumption that because we were African we only listened to Hip Hop and R&B ,and therefore they never showed any Rock or Alternative music.Should creativity be limited only to what one has experienced or sees around them?

If George Lucas had stuck to this “your culture” babble he would never have created the Star Wars franchise, there would be no Superman, Lord of the Rings, He Man, Robocop or any story beyond human experience

So what is the definition of an African Story?
Is it one set in Africa?
Is it one that tells of a historic event or historical figures?
Is it something that puts African traditions and culture on display?
Is it one that involves out fore fathers , mythology and superstitions?

Is it one from South Africa ,Kenya , Nigeria or Sudan. If there is an African Story is there also a European story, that British,French,Italian, Russian film makers have in mind and should tell?

Is the African story that which Hollywood has portrayed in films like Amistad, The God’s must be Crazy , I dream of Africa. Those films that give westerners the idea that we all run around in loin cloth chasing wild animals and retreating to out huts.  Or is it those War child,Famine,poverty, martyr boring ‘African’ movies that win at festivals but you wouldn’t want to watch at the cinema even if they gave you a free ticket , pop corn and a massage.

I suppose Native American film makers should only make films about Tepees, Totem poles,Peace pipes, performing rain dances and being chased by cowboys.

When you talk with some people about making a film.You get excited , cos it’s inspired by a classic, it has stylized dialogue, great sequences and enough pop culture references to blow QT’s and Kevin Smith’s collective load.  They start to push , an African Story agenda on you. “That’s not African,you have to make an African Movie”. You have to make something bus drivers, area boys and people in the village can enjoy. By the time they are done, they have watered down every creative juice from your idea and it is a bland,dull semblance of it’s former self. An emaciated version which you’d cross the street to avoid.

But let’s really take a look at this from a Global point of view. Tarantino has Italian roots, Guillermo Del Toro has Hispanic roots,Hitchcock was British and Truffat was French, all great directors from diverse cultures.But you never see any of them , making films that say “hey , look at me, this is my culture.And i hardly think when picking projects , any of them thought, “Hmmmm. Let me tell them, my Italian,Hispanic,British or French story”. Nor do the fans, go to the cinema thinking,”i want to see a European story”.

I, like many others grew up reading books by foreign authors like Enid Blyton, Roahld Dahl, Judy Blume ,Alan Ahlberg,Dr Seuss etc Not for a second did i read the back of the book and say ,”Huh, that’s a good British/Swedish story, let me read it”. The one and only thing that drew me were the characters,the story, the plot and the reading pleasure i perceived I’d get from reading them.

Also as a cinephile i love a wide range of movies. From the works of Frank Capra to Hitchcock to Woody Allen to Guy Ritchie etc . They make great movies, which you can enjoy regardless how different your culture is from theirs. It never feels like you are being schooled on their culture. The engaging story with interesting characters is what grabs the viewers attention, and if we learn something new about another culture , that’s great.

Now, there are specific films that are like constant exposition of a certain culture, which still manage to be entertaining . Usually stories involving ; Culture clash, e.g An Indian girl growing up in England wants to play football much to her parents chagrin . A wedding eg A Greek Girl marries outside her culture and the groom learns how bizarre their traditions could be.  Fish out of Water stories do this quite well.

If say, someone chose to adapt Chimanda Adiche’s book ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ for the big screen, THAT would be a good telling of the Biafran Story, not only will it cover a significant aspect of history, but many traditions and cultures of the characters involved. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was a brilliant African story, the key word being STORY. It was a human story that happened to be set in Africa, and that is why it did so well. The events could have happened half away across the world ,granted a few changes here and there,but it was the human story, and not the African story that captured our attention.

Like in mythology, it’s the construction of the stories and the characters that capture us, and not necessarily their geographical location. For example, Shongo is a mythological god of thunder in Nigeria, but all the way over in Scandinavia , they have Thor, in Greece it’s Zeus in Roman mythology it’s Jupiter. Some could surmise that it’s all the same character seen from different cultural perspectives. Now, their geographical locations will affect the cultures they come from, and there is where the culture is put on display.

For example,if we properly wanted to tell a story “our story” distinct from a Western story, with elements of our culture;let’s take a coming of age story, with characters , say 12 years old boys.

They skip  going to after summer tutorials(lesson) to instead go shoot at lizards with catapults, throw sticks at fruit trees in a crazy neighbors house, and get chased, a general day of adventure and exploration.They are pre teen boys morphing into adolescence and developing new interests, and we see how it affects their friendship, as some mature faster than others. Wrap all those element around the story of one of the boys dealing with his father’s conflict with the extended family over his turning down of a Chieftancy title that could make them all rich because of it’s clash with his “western” religious beliefs, BOOM, there’s a story.

And things along those lines.

Many “African” films that manage to make it to film festivals , are , stating it bluntly, DULL . They may have great cinematography and performances,but ‎are more effective as Valium than entertainment, and won’t be flying off DVD rental shelves anytime soon. And personally, even the African American films,with themes that shout  “i am black, hear me roar”.”We are black here’s how we are oppressed”. Let’s put sentiment aside,i find them exhausting,a bit depressing and have no desire to watch them.

If instead of setting out to tell a good story, you want to force feed er sorry, i mean educate people on  “this is my culture check us out” , you might as well go and make documentaries for National Geographic or The History Channel.

Now don’t get it twisted, there are stories that need to be told. Historical events, both from the immediate past and from yesteryear. Figures in our nation that need biopics made about them. Dark stories of keeping traditions  that need to be brought to light so they are eradicated,  it’s not all about escapology. But, that all depends on the interest of the story teller. Directing is often equated to getting married, If one is not totally passionate about it, there is no point. There is a reason Michael Bay makes different type of movies from Michael Moore, or Kevin Smith from Paul Greengrass.

So i am not totally opposed to telling stories that inform both the world and upcoming generations ,who we are and where we are coming from. But back to the case at hand

We need to  tell a great human story that captures the emotion,and imagination. Whether it be to make one laugh, cry, shout or sit down and reflect, should be the most important agenda. Tell an engaging story with fascinating characters FIRST and then, the location,nuances, idiosyncrasies, slang and speech patterns and world view of your characters will represent their culture, THEN you have your African Story. KAPISH.


7 comments on “Cinephile Rant:What’s an African Story??

  1. well written bro, sometimes i conceive the same area of thought has u have so well expressed here, it used to bother me, sometimes even now it still does, its painful, but the truth is we’ve been marginalized, African film makers have been so dis regarded that there is actually a stereotype of what they thing we must portray, there is a way the western world wants to see us and anything close to the way they see themselves is just plain boring and wont sell, to them we would seem like we’re a bunch of wannabes that cant match up to the real thing, hence they can not waste an hour of their lives watching africans act westernized, they expect to see tradition, raw culture, they, the want to exploit the savage in us. i worked closely on two commercials “STAR” and “GUINNESS”, and i realized this even more as i worked on those projects, THEY DO NOT WANT TO SEE US WESTERNIZED, its not a racial discrimination thing don’t get me wrong its the world succumbing stereotype expectation pressures, i would be darn disappointed if i saw a movie and the italian dude has no ties to the mob, or the china man doesn’t know karate. the world expects raw culture from africa and any story without this outline, might be hard for them to accept, look at america, black sitcoms are different, so are black movies. black movie makers had to do what black folks want to see else the big studio execs would never approve or fund the show. i remember a scene from Paul Haggis’s “CRASH” where the producer called the character being played by Terrence Howard to retake that scene cos the black dude wasn’t talking black, he was talking learned and that isn’t good for the picture. that a perfect example of whats going on.

    The African FILM…… right now the world wants to see us make movies about our famine, aids, soccer, tradition, activism, politics, military rule, genocide, religious wars, socio political civil wars, fraud, oil related kidnappings, movies like our own Troy, Odyssey…. till we are able to get their attention with this type of films and slowly break into our own, i’m sorry we will remain…….

  2. True talk dude!
    I’d always wondered why after all the ‘african story’ films, we still weren’t communicating our real stories…and here you provide the answer.
    Pls retell our stories for us!

  3. I get this a lot in the stories I write. I’ve been asked by several people why my stories are hardly ever ‘Afro-centric’. You really just spoke my mind. Just what is this mythical ‘African story’. Oh and when I wrote my idea of an African story, I was told it was too Westernised. Like WTH! Africa is Westernised now. We don’t live in thatched houses or wear leaves/animal skin.
    We don’t even pray to the ‘African gods’ anymore.
    There is no such thing as an African story…or American…or European…or Martian.
    (P.S I hate African-American movies. They piss me off.)

  4. Coming from the African music industry, “African Union sends assessment mission to DR Congo and Burundi” is right up our street and we will keep checking for interesting additions to your post. If you want to know more about African movies visit us at
    … Well written, thank you 🙂

  5. yo… I’m writing a Story about a couple of kids growing up in Rhodesia fighting on opposite sides in the war and then their lives that follow on from it in the newly established Zimbabawe… It’s a story of friendship and revenge… having a dig at both white opportunists and so called African leaders who act for the people, when in actual fact they are simply acting for themselves…
    the script is on it’s 6th draft and nearing its end… If you are interested I’ll happily send it through when its done.
    One of the characters talks about “African Stories” and I had a sudden surge of interest to see if anyone had ever defined what an african story is… I have my own definition, but it was quite interesting reading your rant, which i thought was bloody well put!!
    I’m not looking for anything, just simply to share something with someone who is interested in a similar topic!

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