Angelina Jolie’s ‘Africa’ – The White Conservationist’s Burden

February 24, 2015 § 3 Comments

Recently, Angelina Jolie announced that as part of her efforts to raise awareness about wildlife endangerment, she would be directing Africa, a biopic on elephant poaching. The film will tell the story of Richard Leakey, the archaeologist who became an anti-poaching crusader in Kenya during the late ’80s. While I’m all for wildlife protection, I’m not particularly thrilled about Jolie’s latest cinematic venture. Here’s why.

Whenever westerners make “a film about Africa”, it’s never really a film about Africa. Western films on Africa typically stereotype African people and caricature African societies by presenting nameless Africans with affected accents, acting in a service capacity . In the case of Jolie’s Africa, I won’t be surprised if, apart from one or two resistant locals, all the other Kenyan characters in the film are portrayed as colluding “bad guys”: ivory poachers who slaughter the elephants; locals who protect their interests and threaten prying “outsiders”; and officials depicted as secretive, deceitful and domineering with regards to poaching activities and their regulation. Even the choice of title for Jolie’s film smacks of stereotype. Seriously, a film about Kenya titled “Africa”? Whenever westerners use the word “Africa” as an umbrella term for an entire continent of 54 diverse countries, sweeping generalizations and stereotypical images typically follow.

Angelina Jolie in character

Angelina Jolie in character

Moreover, any African characters that are not portrayed negatively are likely to instead appear as victims of those who have been negatively portrayed. For instance, the African anti-poaching guards who die at the hands of poachers while protecting elephants. And even then, their story will only be secondary to that of the white protagonist; if they talk at all, it will only be in reference to the white protagonist. They will not be presented as multi-faceted human beings who are reflective of their culture and history. Africans in western “films about Africa” are there only to serve as a backdrop to the main story of the white protagonist.

Western films set in Africa rarely make any effort to bring out the complexity of the story. Westerners don’t bother to obtain the perspective of local communities on why poaching is so important to their livelihoods. They instead portray Africans as threats to wildlife, while ignoring their crucial role in caring for endangered animals. Moreover, such a narrow focus on the conservation efforts of the 80s is likely to leave the impression that Kenya today lacks a vibrant environmental movement, while minimizing the role of environmentalists like Prof. Wangari Maathai in leading environmental protests.

Films about Africa by the West rarely seek the input of locals, team up with local activists or even independent African film makers, but instead keep it an exclusively American/ European affair. The end result is storylines that rationalize the mission of white saviors through black-and-white and ‘us vs. them’ narrative construction, along with allegations of African collusion, cover-up, and conformity.

Such conservation films also tend to romanticize and instrumentalize animals, whereby filmmakers resort to their Disneyfication, portraying them as having high intelligence and a human-like consciousness. The animals are shown to be ever affectionate and always happy – especially around white people, with whom they share a special “connection” and language. Yet such simplistic anthropomorphization and sentimentalization of these mammals by white saviors is not to engage in genuine relationship with them but to objectify them, to endear them to the audience, so as to rationalize the film’s mission – their rescue.

And is it not ironic that while aiming to put an end to the poaching of elephant tusks, Africa is a commercial movie that will be premised on the very use of elephants for our entertainment? That said, movies are not the only ones to blame for this, as the environmental movement often transforms animals into sentimentalized media icons for political purposes.

Another problem is that such films only target African countries, picking exclusively on Africans, while overlooking the West’s own role in wildlife endangerment. With colonialism and western capitalism, poaching mutated into a complex economy that today supports special interests in game meat, hides and animal trophies. The theft of fertile grazing lands by European colonialists also resulted in a human-wildlife conflict, in which pastoralists were forced to encroach into wildlife areas and wildlife going into farms.

By narrowing her focus on Africa, Angelina Jolie overlooked plenty of environmental conservation issues in her very own backyard to make films about. A fair share of animal slaughter continues to this day in Jolie’s own America, with millions of cows and pigs, and billions of chickens killed annually in US corporate agribusiness industrial slaughterhouses. Environmental contamination by oil companies like Shell has also endangered fish. And then there are the American zoos and animal amusement parks that profit from the capture and caging of elephants and other wildlife. Moreover, the guns used to kill elephants in Africa are produced in the West – Jolie’s own America being the largest weapons manufacturer in the world.

Former US President Theodore Roosevelt posing with a gun next to a bull elephant he shot in Kenya.

Former US President Roosevelt posing with a gun next to a bull elephant he shot in Kenya

There’s a story to be told, not only about the white men in history who saved African animals, but also about the white men who killed them. In 1909, American President Theodore Roosevelt came to East Africa on a hunting expedition during which he massacred and captured over 11,000 animals – including elephants, while collecting animal trophies under the guise of scientific research. Or is it that only the westerners with means are allowed to wantonly kill wildlife?

In an effort to construct white environmental heroes, such potential screenplays become elephants in the room, conveniently ignored in favor of narratives about white men saving cute animals from black men. By focusing on a far-away other “culturally and politically inferior” Kenya rather than their own backyard, and by depicting and rescuing adorable elephants, white people get to prop themselves up as saviors. The audience is then drawn in as they identify with the heroes of the film and get to feel good about themselves and “their” humanitarian icons. The end result is a commercially successful, award-winning, audience-pleasing movie that earns praise from film critics across the West.

Ending the slaughter of elephants should be a top priority for environmentalists and citizens around the world. But we should be wary of cinematic efforts to raise awareness that are stereotypical, crowd-pleasing and which sideline inconvenient truths.


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§ 3 Responses to Angelina Jolie’s ‘Africa’ – The White Conservationist’s Burden

  • I recently finished reading Wangari Maathai’s autobiography and it had me wondering why we don’t see, or hear more stories like this, with the authentic Kenyan heroine inspiring her people and especially the hard working women, like her sisters in the place she came from. I guess, I also know the answer, in that it is about funding and making money and we still seem to want to create films that portray the “good white guy” whether its an American sniper or an Irish hostage or whatever.

    It is the same in the book world, where many say they only wish to read books where they can relate to the protagonist, someone like themselves.

    I also just read The African Equation by Yasmina Khadra and I was kind of hoping he might redress this situation, I think he tries, but ultimately for me the characters all played to those well known stereotypes and the one who stood up for the value of local people was another crazy outsider.

    Ultimately perhaps people just want to see people like themselves being the hero, that’s where the audiences lie. Personally, I want to see the other story, the one that shows we are all as good and as bad as each other, there is no difference other than circumstances.

  • And ironically I just read Tania James, The Tusk That Did the Damage, set in South India, which is narrated from three points of view, the elephant named Gravedigger, the younger Indian brother of a poacher and a young American film maker. The narrative voice of the younger brother was the strongest and the author does a good job of creating the situation in which the brother gets himself tied up in these events, the voice of the elephant is weaker and the film student naive, annoying and disrespectful.

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