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Black African Cinema.

Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike. Black African Cinema. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994. 401 pp. $45.00 cloth/$17.00 paper.

Black African Cinema is a rich, welcome addition to the small but growing number of scholarly works on African cinema. Ukadike maps a broad and ambitious agenda: to trace the history of African film production from colonial times to the present, to examine the themes and cinematic techniques of selected films, and to explicate their social-economic-political significance. He limits his discussion to sub-Saharan films, concentrating on Francophone and Anglophone Africa with some attention to the Lusophone countries. Unlike most previous books on African film--with the notable exception of Francoise Pfaff's work (The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene [1984] and Twenty-Five Black African Filmmakers [1988])--Ukadike provides detailed analysis of the films themselves and their cinematic artistry.

Black African Cinema details the history of African film and television production from the colonial period to the present. For all practical purposes filmmaking by and for Africans began in the 1960s, the period when most African nations achieved independence. Before that time film had been produced by government officials and missionaries as an instrument of colonial control, a vehicle of political propaganda under the guise of education for Africans. Ukadike stresses the distortions and untruths mongered not only by these colonial documentaries but also by Western feature films, which envision Africa as exotic, savage, and primitive. He also criticizes contemporary African film scholarship written by non-Africans as "pedestrian" (16).

The most debilitating problems for African filmmakers are technical and financial: the rudimentary or non-existent infrastructure in most African countries and the paucity of national funding. Yet despite such serious, widespread problems Ukadike believes that "black African cinema has attained aesthetic and artistic maturity" and that African filmmakers now use Western techniques "to forge their own cinematic language and style" (4).

Ukadike offers remedies for Africa's cultural and economic bondage to the West. He urges African governments to terminate the virtual monopoly exercised by Western corporations over film distribution and screening in Africa, which has resulted in the dominance of commercial Hollywood features and the scarcity of venues showing African films. He insists that African cinema must cast off the shackles of net-colonialism and solve the Herculean task of financing and marketing its films. He envisions a future in which sub-Saharan governments financially support their own filmmakers through taxes on cinema tickets, reduced levies on imported film equipment, facilitated foreign exchange, and support for constructing and renovating local theaters. Ukadike's ideal seems to be a nationalized film industry like Burkina Fast's, which supports production without undue government control or censorship. Such an indigenous film industry would divest itself of colonial ideological and financial subordination, encourage Africans to recapture and treasure their distinctive Pan-African cultural traditions, and expunge net-colonial corruption and materialism.

Perhaps the most important point made in this book is the fundamental, pandemic influence on film production of indigenous oral culture--song, dance, oral narration, folklore, rites, and ceremonies. These elements construct a distinctively African cinema, and Ukadike strongly criticizes films which follow Western film practices at the expense of African techniques. A more extensive, precise, and detailed discussion of how such oral materials translate into cinema would be worthwhile and could be incorporated into a later edition of the book.

Black African Cinema has some blemishes. There are factual errors in some film summaries (e.g., on Finzan 270; on Yeelen 255-57, 261). The long, repetitious introduction blurs the focus and taxes reader patience. Ukadike's commitment to cover such a large, heterogeneous number of issues for each film results in some sprawling and disorganized discussions. Effective editing should have corrected this problem.

There are a few seemingly contradictory arguments (e.g., 196), and at times Ukadike's application of his announced critical standards for judging the films wavers. He frequently asserts that African film's fundamental, perhaps sole, purpose should be to nurture the political and social needs of post-colonial Africa rather than to entertain, yet at other times he faults politically sound films for their aesthetic and literary lapses or their failure to engage audiences.

Sometimes Ukadike's argumentation is thin or obscure. For example, his condemnation of the films of David and Judith MacDougall and of Trinh T. Minh-ha is not convincingly documented (52-56). South African film receives scanty commentary: Ukadike spends a lot of time attacking the film version of the stage musical Sarafina while neglecting to discuss the excellent film Mapantsula except to rebuke it along with several other South African films as not "deeply African" (224). Exactly what this means is not clarified. At times the use of critical terminology muddies communication and generates contorted or indecipherable passages (9, 11,260, 310).

Some of Ukadike's judgments are highly debatable, for example, that Finzan presents a "farcical analysis" (271) of female excision because it does not express the historical rationale for such practices. Ukadike states that the scenes of rural village work in films by directors such as Kabore, Sissoko, and Ouedraogo appeal only to Westerners and not Africans; he finds only an ethnographic function in such sequences. His interpretation of Yeelen sometimes strays from the central focus of the film. But argument over such questions can vitalize intellectual discussion, and the more technical problems mentioned above do not compromise the wealth of information, the excellent bibliography and notes, and the diligent yet passionate analysis.

Ukadike's wholistic, interdisciplinary, and ultimately pragmatic approach to African film balances the claims of social-political education and artistic pleasure, advocates the integration of distinctively African qualities with Western film techniques, and accepts the need for non-African funding as well as the imperative for African governments to help underwrite film production. Black African Cinema is the most important critical work yet published about African film. We can be justly grateful to Ukadike for his signal contribution to our understanding of and our joy in African films.
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Author:MacRae, Suzanne H.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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