I never even wanted to go to Africa. It was last on my bucket list and I’d assumed it would never happen, so when I got a call out of the blue from Ellen Harrington, director of special projects at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences asking if I was available to travel with an elite cadre of filmmakers from across the branches on a global outreach mission to Africa, I was stunned. Why did it have to be Africa? There were so many other places I’d never seen. Then I learned it was not South Africa or West Africa, but East Africa -- Kenya and Rwanda. Ummmm, where they had the genocide and everyone runs around with machetes?!
She needed an answer right away as I wasn’t the first choice and time was ticking to get shots and passport in order. I hung up and immediately told my husband, who never hesitated. Go. You have to.
What I found there is hard to explain. But I’m compelled to try. Africa is my great grandmother come back to life. The smells, the beads, the smooth skin over bright teeth. The red beans and fried donuts. The ease of belonging to the dominant culture. A place where colonialism gave way to the original people taking back their land. Where slavery has no place to root or rot even in memory.
Rwanda’s genocide of 1994 -- urged on by decades of colonial influence -- left almost a million people dead within 100 days. Brother against sister, mother against son, neighbor hunting neighbor. No square inch of that green hilly land was spared, and yet 17 years later there’s no talk of Hutu and Tutsi. The young generation is passionately committed to forgiveness and moving forward. Everyone is simply Rwandan. And the world calls this rich, fertile continent whose land is laden with minerals and natural wealth backward. Go figure.
Being on the streets of Nairobi made me think about being a minority in America. In California. In Hollywood. I told my students how great it was to be in the dominant culture. Who you? They laughed. You’re yella yella. Mzungu. A white foreigner. No. No. In the States I’m black, I protested. And I’m sticking to it.
Most of the movies I make feature black and brown faces. And I struggle every time to get them financed because Hollywood says the world isn’t interested in African-American faces or stories. So budgets have to be low enough to write off the foreign sales.
Every other American has a history that started on another continent, dating back centuries, even millennia, from which to tell stories. Think of it. There’s “Elizabeth.” “Braveheart.” “Rome.” “300.” “Motorcycle Diaries.” “Frida.” “Gandhi.” “The Little Emperor.”
It goes on and on. But for African-Americans, apart from “Roots” (which only starts in Africa) we have very few stories that reach back before slavery. Instead we have “The Help.” “Driving Miss Daisy.” “Beloved.” As if our history only began on American soil. This is particularly troubling when we have a continent that not only has a wealth of stories of African kings and queens and everyday heroes and heroines but if those stories do get told, they feature white actors like Elizabeth Taylor or Angelina Jolie.
White Americans don’t stop at the Mayflower, why should we?