Recommended African Films

Shaft in Africa (US, 1973, dir. John Guillermin) In this film, John Shaft, a private investigator played by Richard Roundtree who has appeared in two other films, is kidnapped by an emergent African state’s leaders and taken to Addis Ababa, where he is tasked with breaking up a slave trading ring that supplies labor to Paris. This blaxplotiation film offers a host of interesting and different perspectives on some of the more common tropes throughout the other films on our lists, showing a black American rescuing African enslaved persons and fighting on their behalf against a variety of international bad guys.

Review by Roger Greenspun in the New York Times:


Genre keywords: American savior narratives, blaxploitation

Language: English


Faat Kine (Senegal, 2000, dir. Sembene Ousmane) Faat Kine begins with the titular character (Kine) taking her children, both of whom are very nervous about their upcoming baccalaureate exams. She works at a gas station, and has a pretty big house where she lives with her children, sisters, and mother. Throughout the film, Kine is pursued by two suitors, and we see in flashbacks the way in which she overcame many difficult obstacles to get to her position in the film. It is of special interest for its director, Sembene Ousmane, who began making films in Senegal in the 1970s after Soviet Marxist film training, and for its portrayal of feminist support systems, as well as showing a woman who has largely risen out of poverty during the present-tense scenes of the film.

Review from Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times:

Discussion by Shola Ajiboye (President of the African Center, Indianapolis IN):

Genre keywords: middle class, feminism, working class, marriage plot

Language: French, Wolof


Blood Diamond (US/Germany, 2006, dir. Edward Zwick) In Sierra Leone, a fisherman named Solomon Vandy discovers a valuable pink diamond when he is forced to hunt for them by a slaver named Captain Poison. Incarcerated after a government raid on the diamond mining site, Vandy allies himself with a white Rhodesian gunrunner named Danny Archer, and the two attempt to recover the diamond — Archer for the money, Vandy to get enough money to free his son, who has been press-ganged into service as a child soldier. This movie seems to be an instance of the white-savior trope, with Leonardo Dicaprio’s Archer in that role; however, it is of interest for showing the relationship between the immiserated life of the Sierra Leoneans and a more globally present phenomenon like the diamond industry.

Review by Claudia Puig in USA Today:


Genre keywords: white savior narrative, international trade, military fighting, rural poverty

Language: English


Tsotsi (South Africa, 2006, dir. Gavin Hood) Tsotsi portrays a man who goes by the nickname “tsotsi” — Swahili for gangster — who spends most of his time robbing people in Cape Town with his gang. After a carjacking, he realizes that there is a baby in the car he has stolen, and decides to care for the baby in his shanty town dwelling. Tsotsi spends time showing the main character’s attempts to do right by the baby, as well as offering some explanatory flashbacks suggesting what made him turn to a life of violence; it also shows different levels of community solidarity among Tsotsi’s gang and their friends, and also shows several scenes depicting the worried, middle-class parents of the missing baby, and of the police investigating the carjacking. It is of particular interest for showing shantytown life in Cape Town, for showing elements of rapprochement between the middle class and poor characters, and for its distinctive depiction of childrearing in poverty.

Review from Manohla Dargis in the New York Times:


Genre keywords: crime, childhood

Language: Afrikaans, iXhosa, iZulu, English


District 9 (South Africa, 2009, dir. Neill Blomkamp) This allegorical science fiction film takes place in a world in which alien beings, pejoratively referred to as prawns, live in a high segregated section of South Africa. The film follows a bureaucrat from a United-Nations-like organization tasked with observing the interactions between various other groups and the aliens, most of which are exploitative. The film presents a complex racial allegory, as most of the bureaucrats from the ersatz UN are white, but there is also a lot of involvement from black Nigerian gangsters, preventing too easy a reading of the film as a straight apartheid allegory.

Review by A.O. Scott:


Genre keywords: science fiction, aliens, white savior narrative

Language: English, Nyanja, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Southern Sotho


Viva Riva! (Democratic Republic of Congo, 2010, dir. Djo Tunda Wa Munga) Riva, a small time crook, comes back to Kinshasa from some undescribed but illegal adventures in Angola. He brings with him a truck full of gasoline, an extremely valuable commodity in a DRC where the gas-powered generators frequently fail and cause power outages. Riva quickly gets involved with several different groups of dangerous people, including corrupt military officers, Congolese gangsters, and the Angolans from whom he has stolen the gas. Roger Ebert compared the film to The Third Man for its depiction of Kinshasa, and draws attention to the film’s utilitarian source of riches — gas, rather than gold or diamonds.

It is of particular interest for its scenes of graphic sex and violence, which are omnipresent, and the intricacies of group dynamics in its plot, and for its motif of the Congolese gasoline shortage as a backdrop for the gangster plot.

Review from Roger Ebert:


Genre keywords: crime, energy crises, gangsterism

Language: Lingala, French


The First Grader (Kenya, 2010, dir. Justin Chadwick)  In 2003, Kenya begins providing primary education to all of its citizens. An old man, named Maruge, wants to attend school because he is illiterate and has received a letter from the government that he wants to understand. He faces a great deal of resistance in his effort to attend school, but perseveres, and through his interactions with teachers and other students, frequently occasions flashbacks to his life fifty years earlier as a member of the Mau Mau uprising against the British. The film is reportedly somewhat schmaltzy, but is of interest for its focus on education, and on the connections between colonial history and the present-day work of improving the lives of Kenyans.

Review from Roger Moore of Tribune News Service:


Genre keywords: rural poverty, education, elderly people

Language: English


Ties That Bind (Ghana, 2011, dir. Leila Djansi) Three women — two Ghanaians and one Ghanaian-American — wind up involved with the same rural clinic providing healthcare to poor people in the surroundings. One is the doctor who attends to them, one is a local woman with knowledge of the people, and the third (the Ghanaian-American) is an anthropology professor at a university. All three women also have complicated relationships to childbearing — one miscarries in the film, one has a daughter she had to give up in America, and one has difficulty conceiving with her boyfriend. In their dealings with the students at the university and in the environs of the clinic, there is a great deal of discussion about the shaman-inflected religious practices of the locals and the more scientific beliefs of the women, making this a film of special interest to those who wish to study such a meeting of cultures or of the role of women in traditional Ghanaian society more broadly.

Review on Nollywood REinvented:


Genre keywords: medicine, childcare, rural poverty, narrativizing Africa

Language: English


Nairobi Half Life (Kenya, 2012, dir. David Gitonga) Mwas is a young man who moves to Nairobi from the rural Kenyan countryside, where he attempts to get by and to create films about his life and the people whom he encounters. This film may be of particular interest to students who come from a film production background, as this portrays attempts at participation in the film industry, and can highlight the distinctive questions around the representation of poor people in film, a group that is, due to the prohibitive costs of film production and distribution, unlikely to represent themselves.

Review by Brian Gibson at Vue Weekly:


Genre keywords: urban poverty, rural poverty, film

Language: Swahili, Kikuyu, English


Traitors (Morocco, 2013 dir. Sean Gullette) Malika, a young woman in a Clash-inspired punk band, needs money to finance time in a recording studio, and to help her parents who are about to evicted. She poses as a prostitute, intending to rob her john; she is rescued from him by two men who send her on a drugrunning errand. This film is of particular interest for its feminist hero, its punk-ish attitude and film score, and its treatment of the drug trade in Morocco (with particular attention to Europeans; there are more overt references to Europe in this film than in many of the others).

Review from The Hollywood Reporter:


Genre keywords: music, drugrunning, feminism

Language: Arabic, English, French


Confusion Na Wa (Nigeria, 2013, dir. Kenneth Gyang) A group of Nigerians of varying socioeconomic backgrounds run into each other in this film, which offers a number of different perspectives on Nigerian identity. The main interactions revolve around a stolen cell phone and the repercussions surrounding that theft. It is of particular interest for its broad scope, showing the interconnections of a great number of characters in a short period of time, and for its use of Nollywood actors. It also has a recurring theme in which characters discuss the neocolonial implications of the Disney film The Lion King.

Review from African Studies Review:


Genre keywords: coincidence narrative, crime, urban poverty, narrativizing Africa

Language: English


Captain Phillips (US, 2013, dir. Paul Greengrass) Tom Hanks plays the captain of the cargo ship the Maersk Alabama, which is beset by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Over the next five days, Captain Phillips negotiates with the pirates and attempts to save himself and his crew. Stephanie Zacherek notes the film’s attempt to portray the rationale for the impoverished Somali pirates to wish to hijack these ships, and the complicated way in which such a well-intentioned explanation might also be reductive of the Somalis. Like Horses of God and Timbuktu, this shows people carrying out violent crimes in an attempt to understand them, though this is through the prism of the American victims of their attack. Students interested in intersections of real life and film may wish to attend to the biography of Barkhad Abdi, the actor who plays the chief pirate, who was not an actor when cast, and who returned to working at his brother’s cell phone shop in Minneapolis after his appearance in the film.

Review by Stephanie Zacherek in Village Voice:


Genre keywords: pirates, crime

Language: English, Somali


Timbuktu (Mauritania/Mali, 2014; dir. Abderrahmane Sissako) The lives of a peasant community of Mauritanians is disrupted by the arrival in their community of jihadi militants, who take control and begin impose Sharia law on them. The portrayal of the jihadis in the film is noteworthy for showing them as a group of venal bullies, rather than as religious crusaders or as larger-than-life supervillains. This film is of particular interest for its portrayal of religion and for its portrayal of everyday village life alongside the jihadis’ rule in northwest Africa.

Review from A.O. Scott in the New York Times:


Genre keywords: religion, Islam, rural poverty


Horses of God (Morocco, 2014, dir. Nabil Ayouch) Two brothers in Morocco spend their time smoking marijuana, playing soccer, and engaging in gang violence with their friends. They are also enamored with several European soccer players, whom they view as heroes. Hamid, the elder brother is placed in jail for vandalism and drug dealing, and in prison, he renounces drugs and embraces radical Islamic terrorism. His younger brother Yachine also turns to radical Islam, and the two brothers plan the 2003 Casablanca bombings. This film seems like it would be an interesting pairing with Slumdog Millionaire for its interest in the relationship between impoverished brothers, though this ends in an act of terrorism, rather than game show success.

Review from Mark Jenkins of NPR:


Genre keywords: Islam, terrorism, urban poverty, childhood

English: Arabic, French


Factory Girl (Egypt, 2014, dir. Mohamed Khan) Hiyam, a worker in a textile factory in Cairo, falls for her supervisor, Salah. There are major class obstacles to their becoming a couple, and when everyone assumes (wrongly) that a positive pregnancy test discovered at the factory belongs to Hiyam, Salah becomes even more scornful towards her. Variety suggests that the treatment of melodrama in the film reinforces patriarchal assumptions about the operation of society, but even that kind of reinforcement in the setting of working-class poverty, and class mobility issues, should make it of interest to students in the class.

Review by Jay Weissberg at Variety:


Genre keywords: urban poverty, melodrama, factory work

Language: Arabic


–Matthew Schratz

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