Black Earth Rising: The White Man’s Burden

Revolving around Kate Ashby (Michaela Coel), Black Earth Rising follows her in as a legal investigator in the chambers of Michael Ennis (John Goodman). When her mother Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter), an international criminal lawyer, takes a case in which she will prosecute Rwandan militia leader Simon Nyamoya (David Sapani), the aftermath throws Michael and Kate into a story of history, politics and corruption. Being a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide (1994), this is more than just a case to Kate. This is her past, her present and future. Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN try to arrest war criminal Patrice Ganimana (Tyrone Huggins).

Episode one “In Other News” opens with Eve trying to swiftly end a Q&A, only to be under fire, delivered so well by Paapa Essiedu (kills it in RSC’s Hamlet). He takes aim at her for “vomiting up neo-colonialist bullshit”, marvelling at the arrogance of a white criminal system in Africa. It oozes of Kipling-era rhetoric. Africa didn’t go to Britain. Britain came to them. It’s an impeachment on British history, Jaalen unmoved by Eve’s declaration of having an African child, reminding me of a time when African flesh was fetishised by plantation masters and overseers. It’s a stylish way of saying “I’m not racist, I have a Black friend”, very much following history in its Scramble for Africa.

Harriet Walter plays international criminal prosecutor Eve Ashby
(Black Earth Rising, BBC Two)

The white system playing judge and jury there makes me think of Apartheid, prompting thoughts to films like Mandela (1987) and A Dry White Season (1989). Also, Out of Africa (1985), watching Meryl Streep and Robert Redford frolicking in the African bush in the gaze of a red sun, mambas in the Motherland’s bosom. “This is not the time” the White host says. So, when is the time? On race in the UK, too often are those who speak out silenced. “African problems deserve African solutions” responds Jay. And it’s this scene that sets the precedent for the series, enacting what Kipling writes about in ‘The White Man’s Burden’, – imperialism as a tool to uplift people of colour.

When my mother told me that there was show about the Rwandan Genocide on the BBC, I laughed. I did not believe her. I did not think the BBC had the stomach to attempt something so ambitious. You would not have seen a show like this on BBC television in 2008. Mocked and joked about for being so white in management, crew and cast, the BBC having a show like this is a welcome sight. Meanwhile, they’ve recently palmed off Bake Off to Channel 4. Written and directed by Hugo Blick (The Honourable Woman), this is one of the best series of 2018. Black Earth Rising meanders, it’s mad, it’s intelligent, and it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen next.

Michaela Coel plays legal investigator Kate Ashby in ‘Black Earth Rising’
(Black Earth Rising, BBC Two)

Under Blick and the Beeb, a narrative has been constructed about one of the most volatile and horrific subjects of modern history. They have managed to do this without hiding from the torment and the horror. It’s nuanced and not shoved down your throat. It leaves the viewer to work for the story. Blick’s teleplay shows that these characters would be difficult to be around, so many egos fighting against each other, bringing personal tragedies into global ones. Blick manages to mesh sociopolitical ills with personal drama and vice versa, discussing: family politics, mental health and loss. What’s more, showing how the few control the many and they’re all friends in it together.

When we are first introduced to Michael Ennis (Goodman), he’s sitting on a doorstep eating an ice-cream. As many international lawyers, he too has had his fair share of human misery. He carries his sadness delicately. He tells his comatose daughter, “he’s better for your mother”, in relation to her new partner. The acting is ace and every cast member pulls their weight, even one-episoders like Paapa Essiedu. But I did not like Kate as character. I got the impression she thinks she has a divine right because she has suffered a lot. Nobody is disputing her suffering, but this does not give her permission to treat people how she likes. There is also her moral high horse to contend with.

Ennis does his best to keep Kate grounded, but that often proves difficult
(Black Earth Rising, BBC Two)

Black Earth Rising is the investigation into the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. It’s law, disorder, political power-plays, and neo-colonial rhetoric. It’s in the great performances, wonderful script and truly shows how history is as much in the past as in the present.

Human rights violations, corrupt politicians and war criminals in office… welcome to 2018