Black and White in Colour: African History on Screen

By Jell-Bahlsen, Sabine | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Black and White in Colour: African History on Screen


Jell-Bahlsen, Sabine, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Black and White in Colour: African History on Screen. Edited by Vivian Bickford-Smith and Richard Mendelsohn. Athens: Ohio University Press; Oxford: James Cuney; Cape Town: Double Storey, 2007. Pp. ix, 374. $26.95.

This book is a significant contribution to the study of both African history and film studies, as it focuses on the intersection of mainstream historiography and fiction film. Both editors are professors in the department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town, professing a special interest in film and history. The contributors are scholars of African history, historical anthropology, and religious studies from universities around the world, including Australia, Great Britain, South Africa, Switzerland, and the United States. The volume presents a refreshing augmentation of US-based scholarship of African cinema and African history on film.

The editors' introduction emphasizes the "value of film as a means of engaging with the past" in contrast to conventional academic skepticism towards this medium (p. 1), and provides a brief overview of the emerging field of "film and history," a field they firmly locate in historiography beyond the mere use of film as a teaching aid. The introductory outline discusses the "convergence of two historical streams: African History and 'Film in History'" (p.1), and describes this discourse as commencing with "a debate in pages of the ... American Historical Journal in the late 1980s," (pp. 1, 2) continuing in the journal, Film and History, and promoted in other publications by Hayden White, Peter C. Rollins, Robert Toplin, Mbye Cham, Josef Gugler, and others. The discourse on film as a means of engaging Africa extends to studies of African cinema by authors including Imruh Bakari, Manthia Diawara, Francoise Pfaff, Keyan Tornaselli, Frank N. Ukadike, Jonathan Haynes, and the genre of ethnographic film, not mentioned here. Yet, contrary to previous studies, the editors of the cunent volume "focus squarely on the historical and include films both African and non-African in provenance" (p. 3). The editors have procured seventeen contributions dealing with African history in fiction film, and asked the contributors-Mahir Saul, Ralph A. Austen, Robert Baum, Robert Harms, Nigel Worden, Carolyn Hamilton and Litheko Mosidane, Richard Mendelsohn, Shamil Jeppie, Bill Nasson, Nigel Penn, Ruth Watson, Patrick Harries, David Moore, Teresa Barnes, Vivian Bickford-Smith, Mohamed Adhikari, and David Philips-to take into account the "theorizing of film and history, particularly Rosenstone" (p. 4).

The films discussed include Weend Kuni, Ceddo, Lumumba, Hotel Rwanda, The Battle of Algiers, Cry Freedom, Flame, Chocolat and Nowhere in Africa, among others, and focus on a broad range of times, places, historic figures, invented characters, and topics ranging from a distant but unspecified period in West African history represented by prominent French African film makers, to the African side of the transatlantic slave trade, political and religious colonialism, resistance and heroism, African conscripts in both World Wars, colonial life, white women and projections of Africa, Apartheid, sexual preference and gender as bases for discrimination and oppression, the South African War, Rwanda's genocide, torture, the Algerian War, women in resistance, and post-Apartheid South Africa.

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