- Postcolonial African Cinema: From Political Engagement to Postmodernism
In Postcolonial African Cinema, Michigan State University Professor Kenneth W. Harrow provides what expert reviewers have welcomed as an important addition to the literature on African cinema. It offers a critical overview of African cinema, with pertinent insights drawn from postmodernism-based contextual approaches.
Harrow uses a preface, acknowledgments, an introduction, and nine chapters to spell out the need for a revolution in African film criticism. He explains that this revolution would be “against the old, tired formula deployed in justification of film-making practices that have not substantially changed in forty years. Time for new voices, a new paradigm, a new view—a new Aristotle to invent the poetics we need for today” (preface, p. xi). Toward that end, he suggests that “it is the retreat into safe and comfortable truisms that must be disrupted by this new criticism, this new third cinema challenge” (p. xi).
Harrow’s introduction deals with the creation of a cinema engagé, in which he usefully questions how African cinema came to embrace certain meanings or values, initially, to be considered important “then as central, and then as natural or inevitable in its self-generated charge of creating a cinema engage” (p. 1). Since Ousmane Sembene is an icon of African cinema, it is apt that Harrow offers a series of Sembene’s films as openings into the larger questions of African cinema, with Harrow’s main aim being addressing “the price of following Sembene’s approach to an ideologically driven cinema” (introduction). [End Page 125]
On the ideological plane, Harrow points out that the history of African cinema has shown that its earliest beginnings stemmed from a revolt against colonialism and neocolonialism, which the citizenry “widely embraced[,] given the reigning ideological values of the 1960s and 1970s” (introduction). Harrow feels that because of the classicism of Sembene’s work, one should question, both in his case and that of the films his own works have inspired, the extent of “the price paid by classic social realist African film-makers since the 1960s” (p. 8).
Toward the foregoing ends, Harrow investigates several lines of inquiry. He asks whether filmmakers’ approaches to questions of dependency, social and political domination, and the struggle for liberation have led to closures that are incompatible with current theoretical models, and whether second-wave feminism serves as an opening that permits us to move beyond this bind. To offer depth in fleshing out facts to answer a plethora of queries about African cinema, Harrow discusses in fuller detail such thematic issues as the aesthetic of surface versus depth (pp. 22–43); Sembene’s Xala (pp. 44–65); Cameroonian cinema (pp. 66–94); Jalopy, Divine Carcasse (pp. 95–114); a reading of African cinema, with specific topics in mind (pp. 115–139); an Aristotelian approach or plot (pp. 140–162); “fantasmic support” (pp. 163–176); truth, ethics, and void (pp. 177–197); and postmodern African cinema (pp. 198–225).
In discussing the postmodern African cinema (chapter 9), Harrow asks where Africa fits into the puzzle, advancing the theory that that has been the question “since a national liberation theory of political struggle was developed in the 1960s, when a ‘postcolonial’ order was concocted in replacement of the revolutionary struggle, and when Marxism, feminism, and psychoanalytical theory were deployed in the elaboration of post-structuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism” (p. 198). Harrow here redefines the possibilities and impossibilities of African cinematic practice—which makes his book essential for research and general perusal.