Black and White in Colour: African History on Screen

Article excerpt

Vivian Bickford-Smith and Richard Mendelsohn, eds. Black and White in Colour: African History on Screen. Oxford: James Currey; Athens: Ohio University Press; Cape Town: Double Storey, 2007. ix + 374 pp. List of Contributors. Endnotes. Index. $26.95. Paper.

The quality of a scholarly edited volume is often indicated in the editors' introduction. Do the editors demonstrate a reasonable grasp of the theo- retical frameworks and other critical literature to which their contributors must speak? Have the editors set out a clear theme that will allow the contributors to develop a dialogue among themselves and with their readers? Do the editors show sensitivity to the similarities among their contributors' chapters - that is, to the continuities of the volume - as well as to the distinctions among the various contributions? And do they thus account for the tensions inherent to the principles of true scholarship?

Because Vivian Bickford-Smith and Richard Mendelsohn do exactly these things in the relatively short introduction to Black and White in Colour, it was with pleasant anticipation that I sat down to read the entire volume, and I was not disappointed. Bickford-Smith and Mendelsohn know the worlds of both African film and films made about Africa, and they have set their contributors the task of analyzing a wide variety of these cinemas through specific historical frames, using as their guide the pioneering work of Robert A. Rosenstone on film and history. They also grouped the contributions to the volume aesthetically, allowing the reader to move smoothly from history as presented by African auteurs like Cissé, Sembène, and Kaboré to Hollywood historical films ostensibly set on the African continent while remaining notionally located in the less material realm of Western imaginarles.

There is a great deal of historical and cinematic information to be had in every chapter of the volume. The contributors were obviously chosen for their knowledge of African history and for their deeply cultivated engagement with the films they discuss. For example, at the beginning of the volume, Mahir Saul's appreciation of Gaston Kaboré 's Wend Kuuni and Buud Yam enables the reader to realize how profoundly influential these films have been for all recent African filmmakers who wish to develop a vision of the precolonial period, while Ralph Austen's discussion of Kouyaté's Keïta!: l'héritage du griot and Cissé 's better-known Yeelen offers us the opportunity to see how Mande regional history underlies much of internationally recognized West African cinema. In an interesting contrast to Saul and Austen, Robert Baum then develops an argument about Ousmane Sembène's selective use of Senegalese histories to make a popular, activist cinema that is - in some sense - meant to transcend historical particularities and enable change in the continent rather than to enshrine local moralities. …