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From the Film and Media column in the May 2000 Perspectives

Africa through a Western Optic

Colin Palmer, May 2000

Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Wonders of the African World is a bold attempt to represent Africa and her peoples to a Western audience. This is no easy task because the Africa that many people see has no relation to the realities of the continent, her peoples, and her history. Historically, the many and varied images of Africa have been created to serve partisan positions, particularly in the Western nations.

Gates attempts, in this six-part documentary, to dispel pejorative myths about the continent by focusing on the "wonders" of the African world. But as the documentary nicely demonstrates, there is no single African world to be represented, given the cultural and political heterogeneity of the continent. The quest for "wonders" invites conceptual criticisms, since the criteria to be employed in determining what constitutes a "wonder" in such culturally diverse societies is never addressed. The optic through which the African peoples are viewed is unquestionably that of the West. Along these lines, Gates uses the comments of European visitors to introduce several segments, unfortunately further privileging the assessment of African civilizations by outsiders.

Written and narrated by Gates, one of the principal objectives of the documentary is to uncover black Pharaohs, ancient civilizations, lost cities, and so on. The journey takes Gates to such places as contemporary Egypt, Mali, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Gates dominates the scenes; the camera often focuses as much on him and on contemporary scenes as it does on the "wonders" of the past. One gets the impression that this is an intelligent travelogue buttressed by relevant historical information and sometimes political comment. We see Gates riding on buses, experiencing car breakdowns, taking a sand bath, singing karaoke in a nightclub, and attending an exorcism. He exudes a certain air of informality in his encounters, whether in his attire (sometimes culturally inappropriate), his attempts at humor, or his tendency to address some of those he meets as "brothers."

Gates is the African American visitor who tries hard to establish some emotional connection with his lost kin, but who at times also succeeds in manifesting the detachment of the scholar. It is a treacherous path to tread, one frequently worsened by the professor's cynicism and his apparent unfamiliarity with the history and culture of some of the peoples whose story he is trying to tell. Gates's failure, on occasion, to contest inaccurate information from his informants further weakens the intellectual authority of the series.

Gates seldom romanticizes what he finds although he takes enormous pride in, and expresses much admiration for, the ancient civilizations and states that he discusses. Some of the archaeological sites are captured brilliantly by the camera and sensitively discussed by Gates. Still, a focus on ancient states, empires, and elites reflects a Western bias and celebrates political systems that owed their power to the domination and exploitation of others. A documentary on "Wonders of the African World[s]" should have been more conceptually elastic and should have devoted more attention to the great works of art, music, complex cosmologies, and kin arrangements of the various peoples.

Understandably, some segments of the series are executed more effectively than others. The fifth segment, "The Road to Timbuktu," and the sixth, "The Lost Cities of the South," are particularly well done. "The Holy Land," the fourth segment, would have been more successful if Gates's attention had not been so focused on whether the presence of the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia could be authenticated.

The least satisfying segment is the third, "The Slave Kingdoms." Admitting that he has always been haunted by stories of "Africans selling other Africans," Gates tries to exorcise the ghost. Since the various ethnic groups who inhabited the continent did not embrace an African identity—in contradistinction to an ethnic one—during the era of the slave trade, Gates's conceptual error undermines the overall value of the segment. Simply put, the various ethnic groups mainly sold members of other ethnic groups, for a variety of reasons, including captives taken in war. Demonstrating a deeply felt anguish, Gates conjectures that Africa's many travails may be the consequence of the "curse of having sold its own people away." This surprising but perhaps understandable comment substitutes an emotional outburst for a thoughtful analysis of the continent's historical experiences and contemporary realities. The unpleasant truth, as far as the slave trade is concerned, is that the sellers came from many African ethnic groups and the purchasers on the African coast and in the West were principally Europeans and peoples of European descent. If moral responsibility for the human commerce is to be assigned—and this may not be a productive exercise given the ethos of the times in which it existed—there are many claimants inside and outside of Africa.

These criticisms notwithstanding, this important, informative, and highly interesting documentary is certain to advance the general public's understanding of the historical trajectory of the African continent. Gates's engaging presentation of the material should heighten its appeal. Wonders can be used with profit in appropriate undergraduate courses and should provoke healthy debates. Scholarly assessments of the documentary will undoubtedly continue, hopefully with less discursive passion and more intellectual enlightenment.

—Colin Palmer is a professor at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York.