The ‘African Men–Hollywood stereotypes’ video, positive news and ‘Brand Africa’

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.

23 thoughts on “The ‘African Men–Hollywood stereotypes’ video, positive news and ‘Brand Africa’

  1. Unless I am missing something, their approach is no different than what is being promoted by A Damn Relief or Uganda Speaks. None of the narratives tell the whole story of any particular circumsatnce. Yes there is poverty and other issues in Uganda. A Damn Relief and Uganda Speaks are not glossing over that in their campaigns, they are simply focusing on issues and circumstanes that CNN doesn’t have an interest in. And those stories are worthy of attention, as a matter of necessity to try to give the rest of the world a fuller picture.

  2. dunno if im totally on board with this one. representation matters particularly when it’s deployed as subconscious context for western policy toward africa. its harder to justify military interventions or get gassed up about new jobs planting palm oil when your idea of an African is a little broader than “dirty pathetic scrounger waiting to get lassoed by a warlord.”

    yeah there’s a lot of problems with the whole ‘see they’re just like us!’ narrative….it favors the inevitability of the enlightenment/modernization project, but getting people to access familiarity in difference is a hard project that few people are good at. this might not be ideal, but is it really bad enough to warrant this kind of critique? i can think of a lot of accessible representations of Africans that people could relate to that isn’t situated so shamelessly in Westernization, but at some point ink has to hit the page and to my mind, despite the barf-inducing corniness, its a LOT better than a lot of the shit that’s out there…

  3. The repetition of those vile and violent images gives them power. This was a problem in the other video, “Alex presents Commando”, as well.

    • I’d really like to hear what the criticism of this is. On twitter, the intelligensia is out saying they don’t like it. Why? Without an expalantion, saying that you don’t like something is pointless, useless actually. The above piece does not really point out what is “wrong” with the video, other than saying they don’t like it, in over 500 words.

      I think the drone of the stereotypical African that is portrayed in the video is cleaver. Are there any other Western generated images out there, save for Denzel Washington playing Steve Biko, that offer some thing different (and his character got trumped by the white journalist played by Kevin Cline)? So we have four African men sitting on a bench making fun of typical Hollywood portrayals of Africans (the clip examples were all of violent African men). The vid ends with us hearing something differnent, that African [sic] men have skills, and are educated, and don’t want to play with guns and kill people. Who is this video intended for? Someone with a Phd in cultural studies or a Phd in ID? No, it’s not. Could they have done something different? Probably, perhaps having two men and two women, or three adults and one kid, or…. As I watched the videos on Uganda Speaks, and read the artilces, what you are strick with is their desire to get out a different story, something authentic and modern, yes modern. I was not aware that there was something inherantly wrong with that. If you were to ask the average African if they’d like to be able to travel, get a BA and/or a Masters degree, have a car, a bike, all the electronic gadgets that you can sink a ship with, etc., etc., what so you think they would say? What does it take to be able to do those things? Opportunities and influence.

      • Specifics: in this video on African men and in “Alex presents Commando,” the uber violent male footage outweighs the ultimate message to the contrary, in minutes, frames or by any other measure you might care to use. Those violent images are going to stick in the mind, as they were commercially designed to do, to the tune of many thousands of dollars for professional actors and “special effects.” Indeed, I found the video of young Alex to be a bit alarming. For all the pleasant words that stream across his sweet image at the end, he was clearly taking the wildly over-the-top, vigilante Arnold Schwarzenegger/Commando character as his role model. Are we supposed to approve this as evidence of his brightness or bemoan how warped his values have become from watching American films? The Kenyan guys reminded me of college students I knew at Nairobi University years ago; it would have been nice and maybe even more effective if the film had let us meet other Kenyan men from other walks of life too, or from elsewhere in Arica as well.

      • Funny, didn’t stick in my mind that way. I don’t watch tv, and I don’t play video games either though. What resonates for me is the fact that there are four black, African men who claim to represent something different than the Hollywood hype/crap. Guess I’m gullible. They must be fooling me and everyone else. They’re really trying to subvert my/our intelligence with a subliminal message that regardless of what is said, all African men are violent.(?) (!) (?). Go watch the videos on Uganda Speaks, and the clips on A Damn Relief, it’s all part of the same attemp at redressing the lopsided translation and perspective that is constantly coming out of the West. It’s as if there is a predetermined script that everything has to fall into. It’s all sounding very cliqueish to me.

  4. Elliot! With all due respect but where in this world of prejudice do you take the right and courage from to blackmail the brave intention of these young men to insult them the way you did!???!! Where do you come from and in what society do you live? How about putting yourself in the picture? The stereotypes are there – no doubt – even you admit. Do your homework and do some research on the NGO they are beneficiaries of, the drive behind all these videos. The passion and compassion to really bring about change for a small community near Kisumu, Kenya. How many kids and their families have they already assisted in taking their lives and destiny into their own hands. Now the four guys took the courage to go one step further, to defend themselves by telling their own view on the hollywood depiction of African men – which doesn’t need to meet yours! it’s theirs!
    I suggest unless you have the ability of writing in a more humble way and do better research before you put your word out there you better keep quiet, cause what you wrote up there to me was (excuse my harsh words) *totally crap*.
    Johanna Havemann, editor at AP

    • A typical 20-something year old man is not bothered by how Hollywood depicts young African men, and is not looking to defend themselves against these stereotypes. I highly doubt that these men were yearning to tell this story in this manner. As a Kenyan woman, none of my brothers, cousins, friends, classmates are sitting around worried about the Hollywood depiction, and looking for an outlet to demonstrate to the world how civilised they are (using facebook and holding university degrees). Your typical African young man doesn’t care.
      It feels like these boys were out minding their own business, then someone pointed out to them that they are negatively perceived by the west, this someone then ensured that the boys felt bad about being stereotyped, made them feel like they should do/say something, and when they asked, “Really, it’s important for us to say something? What should we say?”, they were given a script: say the following,”I’m an African man, who has a facebook account”!!
      Someone help me here, I’m struggling to see what value it will add to the world. So what if the west has ‘negative’ stereotypes about African youth? Has anyone said we’re looking for this kind of validation?

  5. I guess the best thing to do is allow the massive parasitic volkwanderung of inter alia africans and in the process destroy civilisation. Oh wait, we’re already doing that.

  6. I don’t have time to write a point by point reply but I do disagree with the critics. I don’t see what’s so wrong with this commercial(?) Fortunately, I don’t often watch the kind of films (with the exception of Blood Diamonds) that these clips are taken from. It’s just not a genre that interests me. As one poster has said – what’s wrong with wanting an education? Also, there are some, but not enough, positive images of African men in films made by Africans. Unfortunately they can’t reach the audiences that Hollywood can (yet), but sites like this can help by bringing African films and film festivals to the notice of a wider audience. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the day the first Nollywood blockbuster hits screens worldwide.

    • A this point I’m confined to watching clips of Shuga on youtube, but it’s a start, and a very refreshing one at that. Oh, and wait, the characters in that series are educated, professional and educated! Who would have thought! And, oh my, they’re real Afrcians!! And they aren’t packin’ rocket launchers and AK47s either. What is this world coming to? Honestly.

      • I have just watched the Lost Kingdoms of Africa on Netflix. Being an American it makes me feel a little behind-the-times, and this series has allowed me to catch up a bit on what is known or being found out about African culture and history. I guess you could call me an anthropologist by training and interest. I have an important subject I wanted to discuss with Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford, or say, present to him. It has to do with my recently learning that in ancient times, as he knows, areas of Africa north of the equator were blessed with a much greater amount of water, due to climate, than they are today. In fact, there was an enormous lake, or could even be called a sea due to its size, that occupied areas now called Nigeria, Chad and adjacent areas. I totally admire and concur with Dr. Gus’s opinions and how he derived them, as to a more fundamental, more truly indigenous and genuine African culture found to have existed in those areas in more recent history. May I suggest, that for further gain in digging for the gold (information) about the areas he looks at in The Lost Kingdoms of Africa, that he go back even further, and he might even hit a very big strike — as it is being found that the peoples and cultures in those ancient times with the huge lake were indeed mightily advanced, developed and very rich. I suggest that the earlier common culture he runs into is actually the dregs or remnants of that even earlier and very powerful culture; as he suggests, much more advanced than what was found in Barbaric Europe as the Ice Age receded from its lands. Of course, it would excacerbate his already sizable problem of where to get the information from? However, perhaps in archeological digs and looking again newly at oral traditions, he might be able to piece some of back together so it is real to people, as real, as, say, Alexander the Great is to Europeans. Once again I am impressed that he was able to knit a lot of disparate pieces of information and physical culture together, and got a lot of good material right from the people living there in the modern age. Is there any way this post can be brought to the Dr.’s personal attention? He is probably the right man in the right place to undertake the type of deeper digging that I suggest.

  7. I think that this video (and the other mamahope videos) can be seen from two equally valid perspectives, indeed the two perspectives that it takes aim at: the African perspective and the US/European perspective. I agree that three African middle class college students likely aren’t concerned with what the middle class US thinks of them. They don’t need to personally provide a counterbalance to the “single story” of poverty, violence, helpless victims, dirt roads, malaria, and AIDS orphans. They have lives to live, careers to develop, their own communities to be concerned with. But those of us from the developed world who have made homes in Africa and other developing countries, who perhaps have children and spouses from those countries, who live a dual life – we have a dual perspective, and a different agenda. It may be similar for those who have migrated in the opposite direction. I am outraged on a daily basis by the narrow US media reports, sickened by another volun-tourism group going to “bring hope to the people of Nicaragua” as though ten high school students could save the population of an entire country, and frustrated by the one-sided image that people have of the country I call home. The Americans working at mamahope likely feel similar frustrations. I think that the obsession with the African middle class is part of that response – most of the US public isn’t aware that there is a middle class in the countries they lump into the generic, poor “developing world.” This is how the “white savior complex” continues: Americans are moved by images and stories of suffering, but since they never see images of Africans who are educated, innovative, highly trained, motivated, and creating solutions for their own communities and countries, they think such people don’t exist. Logically, they think they are the ones to provide the solutions. Seeing these misrepresentations and the huge impact they have on people, communities and countries, makes me want to change those perspectives, and regardless of whether it is the video that I would have chosen to make for this purpose, I applaud efforts like mamahope’s to do so.

  8. I, for one, agree with this post. Although I appreciate the thought and effort behind it, I went from laughing to cringing to thinking ‘WTF?’ in a shockingly short amount of time. I was even somewhat offended by the whole thing. “We are friendly and likeable.” Oh wow, friendly Africans? Who knew? Things will surely change now! “We are even on FB”? Seriously? I mean….seriously??? And what’s with all the subtitles? I understood them perfectly without them. And don’t get me started on the Hollywood-type ending (kind of ironic, too).

  9. What bothers me with these videos is that it responds to the image of the dark African to be saved by the white man with “No, see, look! They can save themselves! Let’s help them!”

    Call it “better” if you want, but better than before doesn’t necessarily mean good.

  10. Rugby?! How odd . . Still, flawed as it is, this clip resonated with some of my young US students whose media diet includes generous helpings of Hollywood portrayals of Africa and Africans. Long history behind this, of course. A luta continua.

  11. There’s another way to see this: forget about PR of Africa image promotion, forget even about Africa for a moment. The video could just as easily depict hollywoods’s portrayal of Asian, Russian, or Brazilian cultures. Instead see the video as a comment on the vacuaous self-interest of American stereotyping that is a media product slowly shifting the global culture, promoting at best the individual over community, at worse the philosophy of American exceptionalism.

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