REVIEW: Africa's Local Tales, With Global Meaning: Three New Perspectives From "Mama Africa"
by Mia Mask
(indieWIRE/06.06.02) -- When most rappers rhymed about drugs, sex and gunfire, Renaissance woman Queen Latifah called for "Unity." Once again, she's on the cutting edge of urban youth culture, only this time as host of "Mama Africa," a collection of well-shot, carefully edited short films that bridge the Atlantic gap between African and American inner-city youth experiences. The films ("Uno's World" from Namibia, "Hang Time" from Nigeria, and "Raya" from South Africa) are local in their setting but global in meaning, proving that pitfalls for young people (i.e., unexpected pregnancy, drug trafficking, and hoop dreams) are similar around the world. "Mama Africa" is a groundbreaking collection because it brings together female directors from various corners of Africa who are diligently dispelling stereotypes of African women.
"Uno's World," directed by Bridget Pickering, is the program headliner. It opens on the eponymous 25-year-old Uno (Sophie David), and her girlfriends Tricia (Sacha Olivier) and Vivian (Judy Matjila), dressing themselves for a party. Applying lipstick, eyeliner, and jewelry, they share stories about dates gone wrong, car rides home, and sordid phone calls from creepy guys. The social world Uno inhabits -- and director Pickering critiques -- is densely populated by well-dressed men, materialistic women, and ambiguous morality. Later that night, Uno's meeting with the brawny Kaura (Muhindua Kaura) results in a steamy one-night stand and an unexpected nine-month pregnancy. Forced to give up life in the fast lane, she capitulates to motherhood. Refusing to accept that Kaura's blown her off, Uno devises a plan to catch her man and confront him.
Director Bridget Pickering presents Uno up as emblematic of many young women who -- out of blissful innocence and willful ignorance -- are fooled into believing that sex can be equated with love and commitment. Eventually, Uno meets Jose (Elia Jack Nakalemo), one of Kaura's business partners. She furtively pretends to become involved in their diamond smuggling operation in an attempt to confront Kaura with his paternal responsibilities. The confrontation proves enlightening for both, as Uno finally comes face-to-face with the realization that Kaura's neither father nor family man.
"Hang Time" is seasoned filmmaker Ngozi Onwurah's latest movie. Onwurah's short docudramas -- like "Coffee Colored Children" (1988), "The Body Beautify" (1991), and "Welcome to the Terrordome" (1994) -- were innovative for the way they tackled bi-racial identity, inter-racial relationships, sexual desirability, and post-colonial angst. She brings her multifaceted perspective and critical lens to a familiar issue giving it regional specificity. "Hang Time" could be described as "'Hoop Dreams' in Nigeria" since it depicts the aspirations and temptations of 18-year-old pro-basketball hopeful, Kwame Achebe (Brian Biragi).
Kwame lives in the shantytown of Ingbu, Nigeria. A talented ball player, he's the best on his local team but he's also the poorest. His tattered high top sneakers won't take him to the tryouts where an American basketball scout will be looking to recruit the next Hakeem Olajuwon to the NBA. The problem: his family can't afford the expensive athletic shoes he needs. With his mother deceased and his father prone to drink, Kwame is one of four children raised by his 70-year-old grandmother (Elizabeth Mathebula). Since the tryouts are only two weeks away, the sinewy athlete is losing faith that his father will send the family money (and a new pair of sneakers as a birthday present) in time.
Time lapse is exactly what local gangster Olu (Brian Bovell) is counting on. Eager to employ Kwame as one of his thieving thugs, Olu strikes a Faustian bargain with the impressionable -- and increasingly impatient -- competitor. In exchange for the necessary funds, Olu hires Kwame to drive the getaway car for an armed robbery. But Murphy's Law prevails and an old man is murdered during the heist. What's worse, the spoils of the incident include a brand new pair of Nike shoes, which just happen to fit Kwame perfectly. Guilt stricken by the incident (and its profound affect on the Achebe family), Kwame considers surrendering to the police. It's not until his younger sister, Chiddy (Hilja Lindsay-Parkinson), schools him on the consequences of his actions that he fully understands his responsibility to the family. Guilt is a luxury they can't afford. She tells Kwame, "You need to understand what will happen to us if you don't get that scholarship; we'll all have to start wheeling, dealing, and whoring just to put food in our bellies!"
Teen actor Hilja Lindsay almost upstages "Hang Time" star Brian Biragi. Her sincerely delivered soliloquies about the excesses of American materialism, the allure of consumer culture, and the family's financial predicament shape the film's intellectual core. The strong maternal instincts scripted for Lindsay's character parallel those given to the elder matriarch, played with tenacity by Elizabeth Mathebula. The screenplay reflects the director's commitment to strong female characters and to depicting African women who've grown tired of economic hardship. As in America, Nigerian hoop dreams are related to real life bread-and-butter issues. Nowhere is the conversion of physical capital to monetary and cultural capital more apparent than in this narrative of hard lessons well learned. Yet "Hang Time" is unique among basketball diaries in providing a distinctly Nigerian perspective on the attraction of America for Africans.
From South African director Zulfah Otto-Sallies comes "Raya," the third and final short in the "Mama Africa" program. A story of three generations of Malaysian immigrant women living in Cape Town, it begins inside prison walls, where Raya has been incarcerated for five years on drug possession charges. Upon her release, she returns to her parents' home where her traditional Muslim mother, Salaama (Denise Newman), is raising Raya's 7-year-old daughter Madeegah (Ayesha Meer Krige).
After a brief but warm greeting, Raya confronts her mother on never having visited her in jail. When Salaama blames her absence on Raya's forbidding father, it's clear that both women have been living in their own respective prisons. Director Otto-Sallies parallels the patriarchal, religious laws of the father (to which Salaama is conditioned) with the patriarchal, secular laws of the state (through which Raya was interned). The generational divide between mother and daughter hinges on individual complicity. Raya rejects social conditions that funnel youth into a criminal economy, while her mother obeys outdated religious rituals -- even in the father's absence.
Before long, mother-daughter disagreements come to a head. Fed up, Raya takes Madeegah and moves in with her ex-boyfriend, and former business partner, Joe (Oscar Petersen). Raya is determined not to re-enter gangster life but she's unwilling to return to the repressed existence she knew as a child growing up in Bo-Kaap -- the old Muslim quarter of Cape Town. A "real" job proves illusive, so she's lured back into her old lifestyle, as Joe convinces her to help him move one last big score. But things go terribly wrong, and Raya's uprooted once again.
The young Ayesha Krige gives a wonderful performance as the diffident but sweet child who has long awaited her mother's return. The cinematography by Michael Brierley captures the beautiful vista of the Table Mountain from the valley of Bo-Kaap. Audiences will enjoy the rich pallet of pastels and primary colors, which shade the suburbs in the surrounding valley. Otto-Sallies talent for writing (she's penned plays, poetry and short scripts) is evident in this neatly written -- albeit recognizable -- story about a single mother trying to organize her life and raise her child in an overly judgmental world.
These short cuts may echo universal themes we've seen played out in the 'hood or back at the barrio, but the woman-centered (dare I say, feminist) perspective given these issues is totally new. Directors Bridget Pickering, Ngozi Onwurah, and Zulfah Otto-Sallies challenge American filmmakers (black, Hispanic, Asian, and Anglo) to include women's voices and directorial talent when trying to "keep it real."