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.”


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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The Secretary of Education stirred up controversy when she said it was up to schools to decide if an undocumented student should be reported to authorities.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 25, 2018
Thousands gathered in Dublin May 12 to say "Love Both" and "Vote No" to abortion on demand. They were protesting abortion on demand in the forthcoming referendum May 25. (CNS photo/John McElroy)
“Priests and bishops get verbal abuse by being told, ‘How can you speak for women? You don’t know what it’s like!’”
America StaffMay 25, 2018
The coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII is seen during a ceremony in Vittorio Veneto Square after its arrival in Bergamo, Italy, May 24. The body of the late pope left the Vatican on May 24 to be displayed in his home region until June 10. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

BERGAMO, Italy (CNS) — Accompanied by Bishop Francesco Beschi of Bergamo and escorted by both Italian and Vatican police officers, the glass coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII left the Vatican early on May 24 for a 370-mile drive to Bergamo.

On this week's episode, we talk with Lieutenant Governor of Washington State, Cyrus Habib.
Olga SeguraMay 25, 2018