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I salute remarkable achievements of black actors, they make us all proud

By Anyang’ Nyong’o | March 9th 2014

By Anyang’ Nyong’o
[email protected]

I have always wondered why Okot p’Bitek’s epic poem, Song of Lawino, had such a great impact on me as a literature student at Makerere University in the late sixties. Indeed I ended up publishing a poem, “the daughter of lowland,” as a reaction to Okot’s debasing of Ocol as an educated neocolonised Acoli man who had lost his manhood to western civilisation.

On reflection, I think Okot had as much impact on me as did William Shakespeare’s “Othello”. I did not think jealousy could destroy a man so drastically. In retrospect, mine was a rather incomplete comprehension of the two works of both literary giants.

“Song of Lawino” is not an easy poem to go through: it is entertaining but painful, full of deceit and injustice, oppression and arrogance, wasteful opulence and frugality in poverty. There is innocence and purity in the idyllic village life, which tragically faces the inevitable “erosion” by the hurricane of modernisation as sons and daughters get “educated” into an incoming “civilisation” from the West. These Ocols of this world are perhaps no different from the “house niggers” of the slavery days in the USA. Yet the story in Song of Lawino is real: the true record of an episode we all lived through in yesteryears, but an episode our children may never remember and relive if they don’t ever “live Okot”; i.e, live through the real drama of Song of Lawino in film at best, or on stage at worst.

That is why Shakespeare was so unique. He knew the power of drama and bequeathed to history narratives of his time that subsequent generations would always relive.

Today, with the power of film making, the transient character of drama on stage has been overcome, and history can be relived and rekindled in our times. The idea that great men can be destroyed by poor sense of judgment, vulnerability of character, insensitivity to the dangerous machinations by knaves and insecurity that is quite often inherent in inter-racial personal relations was a phenomenon as true in Shakespeare’s time as it is today.

Yet, as he finally realised how utterly foolish he had been by completely trusting the wicked Iago and mistrusting his wife Desdemona until he murdered her out of jealousy, Othello does not lose his dignity to the bitter end. He insists that he had to be remembered by his great deeds and accomplishments albeit he had foolishly lost “the jewel of his life” out of sheer jealousy.

“Remember that in Aleppo once, I took by the throat the uncircumcised dog, and smote him thus..!” And with that dignified pose he stabs himself to death.

Lawino is no different. While we can rightly say that: “In Othello the Moor the essential enemy is within the gates,” as Hazlitt very well put it, “in Lawino the Acoli the essential enemy is within the husband”.

Likewise, in Solomon Northop’s “Twelve Years a Slave,” the essential enemy is within the system of slavery: so degrading, so thoroughly inhuman, and so “eroding of all manner of human dignity of the black person”.

The slave girl Patsy, played so convincingly by Lupita Nyong’o, epitomises this dehumanisation that was slavery. While Solomon Northup’s autobiography had been in existence since 1853 and had, in fact, sold thousands of copies with numerous editions since then, the “reliving” of slavery as an ignominious part of American history has only come with Steve McQueen’s current rendering of that experience in film form. It reminds us of the impact Lawrence Olivier’s rendering of “Othello” had in the sixties; and so have been many other film versions of Shakespeare’s other plays. But what happens to equally deserving artistic records of human experience like “Song of Lawino”, or Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s “Weep Not Child”? How about Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”?

In the final analysis, some artist needs to reduce these works of art into film scripts, produce them and make them accessible as films. This takes money: and there lies the rub. As the Los Angeles Times of March 2 observes, “Hollywood has shown scant interest in making movies about the black experience...As McQueen sees it, support for movies like his arrives gradually, and he understands why movie studios have been more willing to explore the inhumanity committed by Nazis than past citizens of the United States.”

If that be the case in the US, in Africa where the film industry is in its nascent stage the responsibility of nurturing it must be put squarely at the doorstep of the intelligentsia, the governments and African Union Commission.

The three must all hang for being hypocritical about culture and the arts, negligent about preserving and reproducing the rich African cultural heritage in drama and film form and completely blind to the meaning of developing an African civilisation which African writers and artists have been at pains to emphasise since independence.

The impact of the winning of the Oscar by “Twelve Years a Slave” as best film of the year should go beyond the shores of the US and reverberate in Africa as a wake up call for us to invest in the arts, develop our film industry and build an African civilisation.

It defeats this purpose if we continue to have no laws to protect the intellectual property of artists, no will to implement such laws where they exist and a permissive use of bootlegged copies of films and music.

The culture of going to the movies, so popular in years gone by, is now being eroded by the electronic age where people sit in front of their TVs and watch movies at home. The socialising effect of movie going is being lost on us; individualism comes with its own atomisation of society disguised as middle class consumerism and attitudes of “having arrived”. The truth is: we are losing a communal culture.


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