New lens on slavery’s toxic legacy

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New lens on slavery’s toxic legacy

With the release last month of the Oscar-nominated Selma, the highly acclaimed first-ever mainstream Martin Luther King biopic, starring Nigeria’s David Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey, among other celebrated actors, the spotlight on black-issue films is back on. However, Beverly Andrews highlights how Selma, and another movie released last year – Njinga Rainha de Angola – have a different, yet vital focus routinely overlooked in movies depicting the plight of black people.

The years 2013 and 2014 will be remembered for box office hits such as the Oscar- winning 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, The Butler and The Help, which pointedly and poignantly depicted centuries of American slavery, brutality and racial segregation.

Other slavery-based films were made in this period, although they did not register on the box-office radar. They included Savannah, which tells the story of a well-educated white hunter who develops a friendship with a freed slave; Something Whispered, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as a man who attempts to free his family from slavery on a tobacco plantation; The Keeping Room, a Civil War drama; Belle, written and directed by Ghana’s Amaa Asante, based on a story of a mixed-race girl who falls in love with an anti-slavery campaigner; and of course there was Tula, with Danny Glover, about a slave uprising in Curaçao in 1795.

It is all well and good to highlight and recollect the abomination that black people have had to endure for centuries, lest we forget. Closing the gap

However despite all these depictions, there have been very few movies which have taken a strong look at those who fought against slavery and other ills against black people on the ground in Africa and those who continued to fight its toxic legacy after the horrendous trade ended, when its tenterhooks still lingered by and large, still felt in America today.   

Selma and Njinga Rainha de Angola fill this gap, which still needs further closing.

Njinga Rainha de Angola, directed by Sergio Graciano, was one of the must-see films at Film Africa 2014 – London’s biggest celebration of African cinema. An enticing blurb by the organisers ensured a great turnout to see one of the rare movies made about Africans’ own fight during slavery. It read:

“In 17th century Angola, a woman leads her kingdom in a 40-year struggle for freedom and independence. Her name is Njinga. She will be known as Queen Njinga. Born into a patriarchal society, Njinga defied tradition to become queen at the age of 50 with the aim of ensuring her people were kept safe from the Portuguese slave traders. A true story of unrivalled determination, Njinga stands today as a symbol of resistance, fully embodying the motto: Those Who Fight, Fight To Win.”

In the film we see Nzinga develop from being this adored daughter of the all-powerful King, to becoming his eventual successor. Unusually for a girl (during that time) she was greatly favoured by her father and from an early age was actively encouraged to attend the meetings of his ruling council.

Even more surprisingly, she was encouraged to train in military strategy. When her father, the ruler of the Nondo and Mataba kingdoms in Angola died, Nzinga’s brother became the country’s leader. She was however involved in decision-making in the inner ruling circle.

Following the death of her brother (in mysterious circumstances – some say suicide, others that he was poisoned) Nzinga initially assumes the role of regent, while her brother’s son becomes king. But he too, soon dies, Nzinga becomes Queen Nzinga.

As the film progresses, we see Nzinga become a fearless fighter in a seemingly unwinnable war against brutal colonial slavers. Surprisingly for those days, women with such tenacity were rare, but Nzinga managed to negotiate a peace treaty, which led to the eventual withdrawal of the Portuguese from their fortress in Ambaca, as well as the release of Angolans who were kept captive at the fortress. Nzinga also negotiated an end to raids carried out by the Imbangala mercenaries who were financed by the Portuguese to fight and kill their own people.

One interesting point in the film is seen during the peace negotiations, when in an insulting and demeaning way, the Portuguese do not offer her a seat and expect her to sit on the floor as a show of their power and to humiliate her. She however hits back to show how powerful she is, and even superior to the Portuguese, by ordering one of her servants to kneel on all fours and sitting on her back instead.

The film then goes to show how she continued to fight and make sure her kingdom and people were never forced into the ravages of slavery again.

A Portuguese and Angolan collaboration directed by Graciano, a relative newcomer, Njinga Rainha de Angola had a budget of just over $1 million, but it is the most ambitious film from Angola to date. But the film’s biggest asset is its star, Ana Santos, who makes her acting debut, as Nzinga. In the film she is nothing short of astonishing.

Enter Selma – the long march to freedom
“Tremendous”, “A Triumph”, “Thrilling” are just a some of the superlatives thrown at Selma while accolades for the David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. have equally been coming in buckets full of praise: “Oyewolo is electrifying as Martin Luther King Jr. His best performance to date,” reads one of the film’s campaign posters.

But just like in Njinga Rainha de Angola, what excites further about Selma is the shift of focus from the perpetrators onto how the victims fought the evil of segregation and its offshoots.

Directed by Ava DuVernay, Selma is based on true events, and documents three turbulent months in 1965, when the revered civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr. courageously led a campaign for black American voting rights, despite vehement and at times ruthless opposition.

It is over 300 years after the official end of slavery, and yet black Americans, especially in the southern states, still live in de facto apartheid segregation with no constitutional rights.

In the film DuVernay shows how as the violence against African-Americans escalates, the pressure mounts to find a leader who can not only unite the African-American community but also act as an effective lobbyist for legislative changes to ensure constitutional rights are upheld.

Martin Luther King Jr. emerges as that leader. He, supported by other activists, masterminds the historic Selma to Montgomery march – which would become a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement as it ultimately culminates in President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – a move that alters American history forever.

Selma is an astonishing film in so many ways. It’s perhaps the very first film to show the true scale of the horrifying violence black protestors faced. For example, the heart-breaking re-enactment of the infamous Birmingham church bombing, which killed four young girls – Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley (all aged 14) and 11-year-old Denise McNair – and seriously wounded scores of others. This incident is one of the many represented in the film and shows the true scale of the hatred which existed at the time and which was, of course, a direct legacy of slavery.

Although DuVernay’s focus in Selma is primarily the emotional journey Martin Luther King makes, and how the enormity of the sacrifice he will eventually make gradually dawns on him, the film also shows the contribution of other key figures in the civil rights movement such as John Lewis, who subsequently went on to become one of the longest-serving members of Congress, and Amelia Boynton, a key female activist, on whom little or nothing is written in the history books.   

The film also shows the unlikely alliance formed between Dr King and Malcolm X.

As the film concludes, you are left in no doubt at the sacrifice and true cost that came with President Johnson’s signing of that voter’s rights act – and the ultimate sacrifice would be the assassination of Dr King himself a few years later.  

Selma, ironically, was released amid simmering tension in America following a spate of police brutality and killings of African-Americans including teenagers Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, reminiscent of the vicious cycle of hatred against black people depicted in the movie.

However, like in Njinga Rainha de Angola, the main premise in Selma, threads back to the scourges wrought by slavery.

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