As much as I tried, I can’t seem to like the new video by San Francisco-based NGO Mama Hope. Four young Kenyans sit on a bench talking through the worst stereotypical depictions of African men in Hollywood movies. We get to see these clips (which don’t not tell us much; the clips don’t make sense in the way they’re used here.) Watch it above. The surprising (!) catch is that our guys on the bench are all middle class, play rugby and are on Facebook. The video is by the same people who made ‘Alex Presents: Commando’ (that was cool just as a piece of popular culture) and the more earnest “Call Me Hope” (read Neelika’s generous critique). But this latest instalment – ‘African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes’ – isn’t funny (except for the line about a shirtless Matthew McConaughey), feels forced, and won’t get anything like as many hits. There are wider issues to think about too.
Some quick background. The idea with this campaign – titled ”Stop the Pity. Unlock the Potential” – is to tell “the story of connection instead of contrast and potential instead of poverty.” In Mama Hope’s own words: “People everywhere have talent and capacity, and people everywhere share a desire to be able to use those gifts to improve their lives and the lives of the people they care about.” As Neelika pointed out in her post on “Call Me Hope”, there’s a sentimentality and feel good quality to it.
But back to “African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes”. There’s a way in which this is part of the “Brand Africa” and lets-have-more-positive-coverage-of-Africa discourse that’s all the rage now.
Sure, the Western media continues shamelessly to traffic in vicious stereotypes of black African masculinity drawn from the deep histories of racist iconography that remain at their disposal in spite of (more likely under the cover of) the general subscription to a rigid politically correct consensus. Yes, it would be nice if they would give this a rest once every few centuries.
But do we really need this kind of “positive image for Africa” stuff? At best it can be framed as a necessary corrective, but the whole PR “brand Africa” shtick is boring, patronising, and finally insubstantial in its attempt to transform the West’s time-honoured way of imagining the continent, ideas that are thoroughly tangled up with ingrained – and much beloved – supremacist notions of Euro-American culture and identity. This isn’t all going to go away because you pointed out that there’s a bloke in Nairobi called Brian who works in HR.
Lydia Polgreen was right last week when she tweeted about Afua Hirsch’s take on lazy Western reporting in/of Africa in the Guardian. (All the big print beasts seem to be bringing out new versions of this kind of post/op-ed every day, which is welcome, though some of the more recent critiques have simply rehashed a lot of not especially original arguments, and even headlines.) To quote Polgreen:
What is more insulting than the idea of “positive news” from Africa? As if the continent was a dull witted child in need of encouragement.
That was pretty much the vibe I got from the ‘African Men’ video. “I am an African man,” all four guys say, at which point I was really hoping one of them would add: “And I also speak English. Fluently. As such I won’t be needing the ginormous subtitles you’ve slapped underneath my actually-totally-comprehensible Kenyan accent.” (The BBC once subtitled everything that Professor Felix Chami, an archaeologist at the University of Dar es Salaam, told Gus Casely-Hayford when he was interviewing him for that Lost Kingdoms of Africa series on the BBC. At least no-one is spared.)
People might want to see this video as a counterpoint to Kony2012, and it’s of course nothing like as egregious, but I’m not sure exactly how far we can move away from the Invisible Children with a video by Joe Sabia (who directs the Mama Hope stuff). Sabia is another Silicone Valley, TED-talking master of viral narrative, which seems to boil down to not much more than a heavily concentrated dose of American sentimentality, however that sentiment is directed. Mama Hope is another white-staffed NGO run out of California. They are doing something very different by attempting to engage very broad cultural currents (as opposed to, say, organising the world’s most self-congratulatory wild-goose chase in Central African Republic), but that’s not without its problems.
The strongest line in the video by far is “There is nothing more dangerous than a brave Western protagonist”. It’s an incisive claim because the stereotypes that they’re trying to challenge have never been meaningful descriptions of African masculinity itself, but have always been ways of constituting an elevated set of ideas about whiteness. It is not incumbent upon African men to prove their normality to Gawker readers by being filmed by a Western NGO doing unthreatening, “modern”, capitalist things like joining Facebook, playing rugby, living in a city, having friends, doing an office job and so on – and that’s why the staging of this whole thing feels a bit weird.
“Stop the pity. Unlock the potential.” It reads like the headline on some dumb Economist editorial about emerging markets: It’s time to end racism, guys, there’s money to be made. (By the way, what is this obsession with proving Africa has a middle class?)
And that’s the thing about branding the continent of Africa in a positive way. “Positive” or not, the chances are you’re selling something that isn’t yours to sell.