Saturday, 5 October 2013

Samantha Lewthwaite and the White Man in Africa

Afua Hirsch writing in The Guardian today bemoans the media obsession with Samantha Lewthwaite and her connection to the Nairobi attack, charging that she is the white, western character we need to remain interested in a story that is primarily African.

She linked this to Hollywood's tendency to use of white characters to tell African stories, something that has annoyed me for years. And it is not just African stories –any Hollywood film about non-white people always has to have at least one white character in the story. This is done, the orthodoxy goes, so that white audiences have someone to “identify with”. As though we can only identify with people who have the same skin colour.

One of the worst offenders is Richard Attenborough, whose Ghandi is full of minor white characters of no interest to anyone (as though Ghandi wasn't interesting enough to carry the film). And my personal favourite, Cry Freedom, supposedly the story of Apartheid activist Steve Biko, but really about the white South African journalist who covered his story. WTF? I think the image says it all, really.

The only movie that has challenged this orthodoxy is Slumdog Millionaire. This is a western film about non-western characters without a white face to be seen in the whole film. Danny Boyle struggled to get this film distributed for that reason; who would pay money to watch a movie about a bunch of Asians, the suits argued. Er –lots of people. 

Which once again proves, as William Goldman famously said, in the movie business “nobody knows anything.” 

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