Can you see my African?

African representation in Western Media


7/14/20234 min leer

Writing this article has been terribly difficult for me because I have to approach this topic pragmatically, buttress it with facts and make an effort to leave emotion out of it. I’ve got to say the latter is exacting. How can one not be sentimental about a dicey subject?

It is no secret that Africa and her descendants have been severely marginalized and misrepresented by mainstream Western media from as early as the 1940s till now in the 21st century, where black and African representation is still being advocated and demanded for. There are countless questions as to why this is still the case, but needless to say, the answers are far and wide.

We all remember how we felt when "Black Panther" first premiered. Africans brimmed with pride and joy in one seamless union. Finally, we were the center of the story, our land portrayed as a place more than war, strife and poverty. We became superheroes at last.

We witnessed the graceful display of the diversity of cultures within our continent. "Black Panther", an Afrofuturist superhero movie set in the fictional country, Wakanda in Africa, compelled most filmmakers to realize the obvious they’d perhaps unconsciously forgotten. It revealed a significant gap that needed to be filled in the representation of Africa.

Movies and media that focus on Africa, if ever, are deeply inundated with the usual lingering depictions of crime, poverty, suffering and backwardness, to the extent that one would think it is a dystopian place set in the past. I believe that those in the West who tell our stories and experiences  may possibly not be adequately emotionally, factually and mentally equipped to confront the complexities that come with being in Africa and her child.

This raises the question of whether we, as gatekeepers of stories that relate to us, effectively analyze and critique projects that are undertaken to tell stories on our behalf. Are we, as Africans or the black diaspora, consulted before these projects see the light of day?

A study conducted by The Africa Narrative called Africa in the Media*, reviewed almost 700,000 hours of scripted and non-scripted television news, entertainment content and 1.2 million tweets in 2019 to assess the type of coverage Africa received and the kinds of stories about Africa and Africans that were consumed by Americans. The results were insightful but disappointingly disheartening.

After analyzing 700,000 hours of programming, the study found that there were 25 major scripted stories about Africa, out of which 14 were centered on crime. This means that viewers are twice more likely to see Africa depicted negatively. Furthermore, 35% mentions of Africa in scripted entertainment were also focused on crime. In 13% of entertainment storylines that mentioned Africa and included an African character, 80% of roles were minor roles and when African characters appeared, 46% spoke only 10 words or less. 31% of African characters were African women.

The study also revealed that the top 5 African countries mentioned in entertainment, with South Africa and  Kenya making up 14%, followed by Egypt (10%), Nigeria (10%) and Congo (6%).

We can safely thank social media for the urgency with which it calls for accountability and responsibility in matters of representation. There are indeed positive aspects of “cancel culture." However, like fire, social media can be used to perpetuate racism by people who have embraced ignorance and prejudice.

When it was announced that Halle Bailey had been cast as Ariel in the live action version of the Disney classic, “The Little Mermaid”, there was a significant amount backlash and hate directed at her simply because she is a black woman. Personally, the entire experience of scrolling through social media platforms and watching young black and brown girls respond to the trailer with statements like “Mommy she looks like me,” “She has dreads just like me,” “Ariel is brown/black just like me” showed the depths of misrepresentation and was emotionally daunting for most of us. These young girls couldn’t believe that a Disney princess could be a black/brown girl.

Directors and writers like Kuukua Eshun, Kemi Adetiba, Leila Djansi, Yaba Badoe, Amina Mama, Kunle Afolayan and Tope Oshin are among the many African story tellers changing the way Africa and her people are portrayed on the silver screen.

With the increasing number of African filmmakers on the continent, there is hope that the depiction of Africa and Africans undergoes a pivotal positive transformation in the future. However, in the meantime an active resistance to negative representation and support from all stakeholders will be crucial in helping filmmakers push the positive and authentic narrative of Africa and Africans. This support will greatly aid viewers and future generations in appreciating African stories and experiences better.

The report highlights the predominance of negative portrayals of Africa, which underscores the important questions of what we as Africans or people of African descent are actively doing to tell black stories and change the narrative? How are we actively demanding accountability and accuracy in depictions of us?

Thankfully, a wave of change has ignited by increased demands of representation to be acknowledged and acted upon. There is a noticeable rise in the casting of people of African descent in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, although with resistance in some quarters.

Online television streaming services are now allocating budgets for African stories, leading to a growing number   of movies and tv shows being regularly updated on their digital library. Projects like Beverly Naya’s "Skin", "Aníkúlápó," "King of Boys," and others are effectively telling our stories in ways that are relatable to the colours of Africa. These initiatives are instrumental in reshaping the narratives and promoting more diverse and accurate representations of African experiences.

Image credit: Icarus Films