What we’re hearing isn’t Africa, but Hollywood’s imagination of it.
Imagine Africa. Please, take a moment. More than likely, a panorama of poignant images has appeared in your mind. Something scenic. The lone baobab tree at sunset. Something tragic. A dark skinned, short‑haired child with flies swarming around her face. These images inspire you to be grateful for what you have. More than likely, these visuals are products of Western design. And like a moving subject captured in a flip-phone camera, these images of Africa and African people are often distorted.
Hollywood films about Africa are just that: results of the Hollywood imagination, divorced from reality. Carefully crafted frames and soundbites only too eager to exploit the ignorance of the common viewer, someone who has little to no knowledge of Africa, who is willing to think of the continent as one, homogenous place, instead of home to dozens of countries and thousands of cultures. A viewer who is, most importantly, not African, and will not challenge the images that have been presented to them.
In Curtis Keim’s book Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind, the Professor of History and Political Science at Moravian College asserts, “There is nothing wrong with entertainment, of course, except that this is where we pick up our ideas about Africa.”
Perhaps one of the most pervasive of these cinematic errs endures in the pattern of historical failures displayed in American actors playing African characters, or more accurately playing at being African. It is not impossible for a non-African to play an African character. In fact, it is not always possible for an African to play an African character. African identity, like Blackness, is tremendous in its multitudes and spans vast geographies and cultures.
Still, films like Black Panther, Concussion, and Blood Diamond evidence a vast disconnect between the portrayals of African characters and the realities of African identity. And nowhere is this demonstrated more powerfully than in the depiction of African accents.
When I first heard about the movie Black Panther, I was appropriately thrilled. Here was a movie about Black people, dark-skinned Black people, set in Africa. A movie that was not going to be steeped in tragedy, but was instead a proud homage to Afrofuturism. Black Panther was going to be one of those movies we were going to be talking about for generations to come.
And then I saw the trailer.
My god, those accents.
The accent of King T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, was supposed to be a South African one. Xhosa was allegedly the King’s native tongue. What I found instead was an over-exaggerated inflection, a strange slip into self-parody of a South African. My reaction was similar to what several Ghanaians in Accra experienced during the film’s premiere. NPR’s Tim McDonnell described some audience members to “have found [the accents] forced, vague, and unconvincing, with heavily articulated consonants and a grab-bag of speech patterns from Nigeria, South Africa, and the Swahili-speaking countries of East Africa.”
Of course, it is only fair to note that the accents depicted in the film were not meant to be carbon-copies of South African accents. Barbara McGuire, the dialect coach for Black Panther, believed the overlapping of American accents and African-voice training could help convey the “mix of tribes that are in Wakanda.”
It’s insulting to believe that American accents are ideal conduits to showcase the diversity of African accents. These pseudo-American-African accents were constant reminders of Hollywood’s deep misunderstanding of African people.
The most horrendous example was arguably Zuri, played by the very talented (if not in this film) Forest Whitaker. Previously, Whitaker had played the infamous Ugandan President Idi Amin in the Last King of Scotland, though I do not remember rolling my eyes at his performance in that. Zuri’s accent was roundly mocked on Black Twitter, like in this Spongebob Meme. Pay special attention to the spelling.
The popularity of these films suggests that what Hollywood deems culturally acceptable does not always mean culturally accurate. The bizarre speech patterns found in Black Panther not only detracted from the strength of the film, but were a constant reminder of Hollywood’s perceptions of African people. If we can create a fictional accent for Wakanda, of course it was created to match Western perceptions of Africa. It would be easy to say that these accents were too difficult to be learned properly by Boseman and Whitaker, yet is that not the responsibility of actors to master their craft and the roles they have accepted? And if that were the case, why was the role of the rebellious leader M’Baku, played by Winston Duke, lauded by Nigerians worldwide? Duke’s Nigerian accent was so convincing, Konbini’s Daniel Orubo found numerous Twitter users who believed him to actually be a native of Igboland.
Beth McGuire, Black Panther’s dialect coach, is one of the leading specialists on actor-training in African accents. In her interview in Slate, she described working closely with the main actors to create their new voices. McGuire states, “I kept thinking of the 9-year old Xhosa kid in South Africa. That was my audience.” It is difficult to believe this view was one shared by many other major players in the production of Black Panther. McGuire credits director Ryan Coogler with understanding the importance of mastering the character’s dialects. However, McGuire also notes how difficult it was to get adequate time training the actors. She revealed, “Well, I gotta tell you, what time they could give, they would. It’s just everybody wants a piece of the time.” If those besides Coogler held McGuire’s same belief, would there have been more careful dialectal training for the actors?
Like Black Panther, films like Blood Diamond and Concussion exploit the ignorance of Western audiences. Will Smith’s cartoonish portrayal of the maverick Dr. Omalu is the worst of all. In fact, his accent is so terrible that I have yet to complete the full trailer of Concussion because I would rather hold on to what respect I still have for Will Smith. In her Slate interview, McGuire, who is a White woman, calls Will Smith’s performance “racist.” A scene from the film was memorialized in the only way that gigantic missteps from Hollywood can be remembered — in an hour-long video of Smith-as-Omalu, a strange Dr. Jekyll amalgamation of bad acting and worse dialectical training, repeating the words “Tell the truth.” However, Smith was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role.
Blood Diamond is another film about Africans with high acclaim and unconvincing accents. When I finished watching the film I was sure they had not consulted one Sierra Leonean throughout its entire production. Their take on Krio, the West African lingua franca, was babble. I wondered how the film went into production, and then I remembered the big names behind it. Leonardo DiCaprio played racist/white savior writ large Danny Archer, and while some adored his Rhodesian accent, others found it lacking. Djimon Hounsou’s Sierra Leonean accent was nonexistent.
Perhaps cynicism was at play, with no one believing it was necessary for his accent to be accurate when Hounsou’s character, Solomon Vandy, comes from a country with a population of fewer than 10 million people. I highly doubt critical Sierra Leoneans was American director’s Edward Zwick’s Hollywood’s target audience.
DiCaprio and Hounsou were both nominated for Oscars in 2007.
Beyond the accents, what is most disturbing about the film is its other distortions, and its leaning-in to the enduring trope of the Barbaric African who is prone to random bursts of rage in need of a (racist) White savior. As Keim stated in his book, “Movies, too, teach us our African stereotypes.” These stereotypes have more connection to race than anything else.
After being honored for his seminal role as Martin Luther King Jr. at the 2014 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Nigerian-British actor Daniel Oyelowo reflected, “We as Black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings, or being in the center of our narrative driving it forward.” Oyelowo was referencing what he and many others believed was a direct snub against Ava DuVernay’s film Selma during Oscar season. Four years later, Black Panther became one of the most-watched films in the world, bad African accents, Black royalty, and all.
In order to end inaccurate and one-dimensional depictions of African people in Hollywood, there needs to be a serious reckoning with those that hold decision-making powers in film production. We have seen stereotypes and misrepresentations play out again and again in media, a direct result of not holding producers up to a higher standard.
Hollywood must invite non-Westerners to the decision-making table, and require better training of its actors to properly portray African people. And is it really so controversial to find a well-trained actor from that country to play these characters?
Or heck, just call Winston Duke — he seems to have it down.