Years ago, going to the movies was signalled by the sight of a van inscribed with the words “Factual Films” driving into our village market square, which was six kilometres from home.
Three things worked against girls like me “going to the movies”. Films were screened at night as the darkness provided the conditions to light up the screen, those attending, mostly young men and boys, carried rotten eggs for mock fights as soon as the movie ended.
On movie nights, I would dress like a boy and with my four brothers walking in protective formation. The national anthem would be followed by cries of “watoto kaeni chini!” (children, sit down!).
They were always action movies. The announcer would coin pseudonyms for the lead characters, to help us relate to them. Sean Connery would be Juma Mkali, tough Juma, Clint Eastwood would be Bwana Hodari, the brave one, Chuck Norris, maybe because of his bravery or his hairy face was Simba wa Nyika, the lion of the plains. Bruce Lee, whom the announcer never forgot to say moved so fast the camera had a problem recording him, was just Bruce Lee.
Adolescents like we were then struggled with questions of identity and people to emulate. It was cool to identify with these actors and they became our heroes. We didn’t even notice the absence of black people in their movies or when included, their roles, usually supporting or non-influential servants or taxi drivers.
We developed the empathy to identify with “our heroes” and learnt subconsciously to surrender to the narrative of a cast without anyone who looked like us. Our heroes exercised power and we wanted to be like them.
I have been trying to reflect on the deep grief many of us felt on the passing of American actor Chadwick Boseman on August 28. We are grieving because he played roles that would not have required a pseudonym for black people to identify with. He was just Chadwick.
He made history as the first black superhero lead King T’Challa in Black Panther. He played Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball, and James Brown, African American singer and record producer.
Importantly, Chadwick played the young black lawyer Thurgood Marshall, in Marshall. Thurgood, a leading light in the American civil rights movement served as Legal Defense Fund litigator of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP).
Kenyans owe Thurgood Marshall. Like Miriam Makeba whom I wrote about two weeks ago, Marshall was invited to Kenya by Tom Mboya, arriving in 1960 to support Kenya’s Constitution making process, becoming a strong voice in the African negotiating and drafting team. Marshall would, in 1967, become America’s first black Supreme Court Justice. But I digress.
Could Chadwick have deeper lessons in representation for us?
How many people from minority ethnic communities feature as lead actors in the movies and TV shows Africans make? Do we, for instance, assume that there is a single experience of the world by minority ethnic communities? Are we contributing to historical erasure of minorities, denying access to stories on their lives? Do we have ethnic minority film making producers? Do film crews represent ethnic diversity?
Are we representing cultural diversity and offering representation to all social groups? Who are we representing and therefore sending the message that their story matters and they are part of the national and African story?
Are we stereotyping? Is the watchman, thief, wealthy individual, or house help in your film portrayed stereotypically and given names only from certain ethnic communities? Speaking at his alma mater, Howard University, Chadwick gave an example of a stereotypical role of an African-American involved in a gang — whose father had abandoned the family and mother was on heroin — he had been hired to play. He was fired when he questioned the stereotype.
In Black Panther, we saw ourselves in Chadwick and the black cast. They made us feel fearless, connected with the legacies of those who came before us.
Films and TV shows not only offer viewers a reflection of themselves, they entertain, educate, capture real and imagined culture and tell powerful stories, often leaving permanent imprints on viewers.
In a world increasingly defined by a “them” and “us” mindset, films can help us accept and not despise or fear differences.
Like Chadwick showed us, actors from diverse backgrounds influence attitudes, shape understanding, transform a story and capture evolving culture.
I do wish a more modern form of the mobile cinema would make a comeback, connecting our stories across Africa, without the rotten eggs of course.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism. Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, [email protected]