Looking at What’s Wrong to See What’s Right: Teaching Slavery in Africa through Film
Paul Bjerk, May 2014
For several years I have taught a class on slavery in Africa, which is far from my specialty but an important topic for American students and a necessary counterpoint to the ingrained moral tropes that dominate our historical perception of slavery. From Alex Haley’s Roots to Steve McQueen’s cinematic adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave, American depictions of slavery are generally concerned with a particular experience of enslavement as the discursive antithesis to freedom. Breaking from this equation is a necessary first step toward understanding not only slavery but also social organization in precolonial Africa, which was built on patron-client networks bound by obligations of labor, protection, and exchange. Slavery encompassed many types of relationships, almost none of them conforming to the chattel slavery model of the Americas. Films focused on the African context of slavery prompt students to be open to the unfamiliar, and to think more skeptically about that most familiar of forms, the feature film.
The challenge is to help students appreciate the profoundly different moral and cosmological worlds of precolonial African societies while questioning exoticized portrayals. Watching three films critically, students confront visions of African slaving kingdoms and try to sort out accuracy from anachronism. The approach works only when students do the readings, and discussion is necessary before and after each film. With the readings, students find that all the films are unreliable portrayals of history in various ways. But the films prompt the students to read scholarly histories more attentively and visualize how historical agents might have acted in their cultural contexts. As one student put it, “by looking at what is wrong, you see what is right.”
The three films are Ousmane Sembène’s Ceddo (Senegal, 1977), Roger Gnoan M’bala’s Adanggaman (Ivory Coast, 2000), and Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde (Germany, 1987). All three were filmed in Africa on historically accurate sets with African actors, depicting themes evident in course readings. Ceddo’s caustic portrayal of Islamic revolution is perhaps the most controversial film in the controversial career of Africa’s most celebrated filmmaker. Adanggaman is an imaginative depiction of the crisis of conscience facing African villagers caught up in a Dahomean slave raid. Cobra Verde is based on anthropologist Bruce Chatwin’s feverish novel The Viceroy of Ouida. The first half is filmed in credible Brazilian locations before shifting to Ghana’s Elmina Castle, which stands in for a European trading post in Ouidah.
The films present a chronological sequence of themes from the Atlantic disruption of the trans-Saharan trade to the proscribed trade of the 19th century. The sequence allows students to build the critical tools necessary to watch as scholars of history rather than fans of cinema. After viewing each film, the students debate its internal logic, the accuracy of its historical setting, its basis of historical interpretation, and the ethics of its cinematic presentation, especially the manipulation of viewers toward certain biases. These categories overlap, but they provide structure for an informal debate that seeks to uncover the unspoken thesis driving each film. The students then write historical critiques of the films with reference to their readings.
During the first week I have the class come up with a universal definition of slavery. This quickly proves that something we took to be cut-and-dried is actually almost impossible to pin down. Initial attempts to describe slaves in terms of property fall short, and no phrase can fully encompass the varieties of coercion that slaves confronted. Perhaps the simplest definition of a slave was the best: “someone forced to do the hard labor no one wants to do.” During the semester they read excerpts from theoretical works and come around to expansive new insights into slavery as alienation, as social death, and (unexpectedly) as potential kinship.
I use the kingdom of Dahomey (in what is now Benin) as a case study that students research for a final paper. For two centuries, the slave-trading kingdom exported nearly 10,000 captives a year and is remembered for its female military corps. Students read Edna Bay’s Wives of the Leopard, which provides continually surprising cultural insight and analysis of Dahomey’s history. Most importantly, her work frees us from the garish fixation on “Amazon warriors” to understand how this militaristic kingdom was governed from a palace compound dominated by royal women. Robin Law’s Ouidah, illuminating Dahomey’s main port of export, complements Bay’s cultural focus with its methodical analysis of the city’s political economy and the people who ran it. Finally, James Sweet’s recent Domingos Álvares follows a dissident Dahomean healer across the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil and thence to Portuguese inquisition dungeons. This ties together the last quarter of the class, which deals with the presence of African culture in the Americas and the memories that still percolate across the regions affected by the traumatic trade in people.
The first film I show the class is Sembène’s Ceddo. The ceddo were slave soldiers in precolonial times, and the term now has pejorative connotations in modern Senegal. Sembène reconstructs them as indigenous defenders of tradition against Islamic incursion. The screenplay is written like a stage play, and the plot is driven by conversations deeply embedded in the matrilineal politics of Wolof kingdoms uncomfortably balancing relationships between Islam, local religions, and the Atlantic economy. The characters’ machinations are nearly unintelligible to the students, and this is intentional. The film puts the students off balance and opens their imaginations to unfamiliar cultural and political systems. However, their readings reveal that Sembène’s radical critique of religious extremism in politics portrays Islam in an unfairly negative light.
In reality, Islam was seen as a refuge for those fleeing ceddo tyranny—rather than vice versa, as in the film. Sembène’s anti-Islamic bias is easy to discern if the students read Adama Guèye’s chapter in Sylviane Diouf’s volume, but for those who don’t, the imam’s declaration of jihad troublingly affirms stereotypes that are particularly toxic in the world today. With the readings, however, the film becomes a lesson in the ease with which a filmmaker can distort historical memory, and the challenges scholars face in disputing historical fictions.
If I were to show one movie only, it would be M’bala’s Adanggaman. With its unambiguous condemnation of Dahomey’s slave-raiding origins and highly moral protagonist resisting slavery under impossible circumstances, Adanggaman paints a sympathetic moral world in a precolonial social setting. Compared to the other two films, its weaknesses are more benignly theoretical. Students with some background in social history can recognize the anachronistic aspirations of the hero, with his modern sense of “freedom” as unfettered autonomy and his equally modern devotion to romantic love. M’bala’s strength lies in his credible portrayal of local African resistance, which echoes the essays in Diouf’s volume, and his feminist subplots that humanize Dahomey’s infamous brigade of female warriors. Other details, like the hero’s conflict with his father and his willingness to trade places with his enslaved mother, echo theoretical readings on domestic economies and the local exchange of dependent clients that prefaced the capitalist slave trade. Students (and teachers) might also appreciate insightful commentary on the film by CUNY world history professor Fritz Umbach, which is included with the DVD.
I show Herzog’s Cobra Verde last because its prurient gaze is potentially even more toxic than Sembène’s easily disputed take on religion. Building on class debate, one student perceptively noted that the use of an immoral main character gives license to play out a slaver’s fantasy of savagery, sexuality, and power. Herzog’s caricatures thrill by confirming some of the oldest stereotypes deployed by European explorers and exploiters of Africa. He gets away with it only because his criminal protagonist so clearly represents the morally stunted voice of a slave trader like Robert Norris.
Without scholarly critique, it is easy to mistake Herzog’s exoticism for reality because the story is loosely based on a historical Brazilian slave trader named Francisco de Souza. De Souza settled in the Eurafrican community at Ouidah and eventually aided a coup d’état in Dahomey that made him an influential officer in the court of King Gezo. After much historically apt spectacle and intrigue, we are left with an exhausted slaver whose cinematic end is far more miserable than that of the real de Souza, who was buried as a Dahomean prince. By this time in the course students have the critical tools and historical knowledge to evaluate Herzog’s reckless ambition, and perhaps take note of the film’s moral anchor: the antihero’s knowing comment that “slavery was no misunderstanding; it was a crime.”
Ceddo, Adanggaman, and Cobra Verde help students envision the cultural context of slavery in Africa, allowing them to set aside the more familiar ways we remember slavery in the American setting. With readings guiding them toward critical evaluation of the films, students can debate the dangers of historical revision in popular culture, and in the process learn something about how the slave trade actually worked in Africa.
Technical note: It is difficult to find Ceddo with English subtitles, but an English subtitle set (.srt file) is available on various sites online and can be integrated using a process like that described in http://www.d-addicts.com/forum/viewtopic_39044.htm.
Paul Bjerk (@paulbjerk) is an assistant professor of African and world history at Texas Tech University. His research focuses on the politics of governance in modern Tanzania, and his book Building a Peaceful Nation will be published by Rochester University Press next year.
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