Seeing Africans as more than collateral

Over the weekend I had the chance to see “Eye in the Sky,” the new Helen Mirren/Aaron Paul film about a joint British-American drone mission in a heavily populated area of Nairobi, Kenya. It’s very much an “agenda movie,” characters with different points of view arguing furiously about the ethics of drone strikes while the life of an innocent (and incredibly sweet) Kenyan girl lies in the balance. Though it exposes a piece of what will most certainly be the most horrific legacy of the Obama administration, our country’s unconscionable use of drone strikes despite regular and ongoing civilian casualties, “Sky” is no bleeding-heart leftie screed. Hawks and doves both are afforded the chance to be compelling. In the end I don’t think I could tell you what (if any) is the position held by the filmmakers.

This weekend I also came upon a recent New Yorker post about “Strolling,” a web series in which British filmmaker Cecile Emeke talks with men and women of African descent from around the world about their experiences. It’s a fascinating set of short videos. A Dutch model describes the challenge of being black in the Netherlands: “The white Dutch people won’t see me as Dutch because I’m colored. I speak Dutch...I was born and raised in the Netherlands, but I’m always the ‘other.’ People have this image in their head that Dutch people are white. Even Oprah Winfrey said that once on a show: ‘Oh, you have colored people in the Netherlands?’ Yes, girl, you do.”

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Two women raised in Italy likewise speak of how hard the country makes it for them to become citizens, though they’ve spent their whole lives in Italy, and a woman in France reflects on how impossible it is to think you’re beautiful when you don’t see yourself represented anywhere around you. Meanwhile for a man and woman in Jamaica, main concerns include the prevalence of depression among young people (and the stigma that is attached) and understanding crime in the country. “Half of life in Jamaica is about trying to survive.... The people [who break the law], they’re not necessarily trying to harm you. They want to eat too. That’s the other part you don’t see, the tourism videos or ads or the hotel campaigns leave out, that people are just trying to live. They want to eat too.”

A movie like “Eye in the Sky,” despite its best intentions, is ultimately another story about white Western men and women located like the gods on Mount Olympus, looking down on “humanity” (aka, everyone else) and deciding their fate. (There’s one person of color among the British contingent; notably, he’s ordered by his white superior to lie so that the mission can go forward.) It’s the kind of movie that we call “important,” and yet on some level is also dangerously hollow.

“Strolling,” on the other hand, positions people of African descent not as victims or stakes, inherently collateral “below,” but as subjects. They surprise, they challenge and above all they speak—and exist—for themselves.

Jim McDermott, S.J., a screenwriter, is America’s Los Angeles correspondent. Twitter: @PopCulturPriest.

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