- Taylor Swift: Wildest Dreams by Joseph Kahn, and: King Solomon’s Mines by Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton
The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
We dream of a brand new start,
But we dream in the dark, for the most part.— Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Taylor Swift’s 2015 music video, Wildest Dreams, tells the story of an illicit love affair between two white actors filming on location in 1950s Africa. Shot in Botswana and South Africa before a backdrop of wild animals, acacia trees, and a host of white extras playing filmmakers, the video created instant controversy because of the absence of black actors and the idealized image it portrays of colonial Africa. Writing for National Public Radio, [End Page 301] Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe charged that the video “packages our continent as the backdrop for . . . romantic songs devoid of any African person or storyline . . . in a time when the people depicted by Swift and her co-stars killed, dehumanized and traumatized millions of Africans. That is beyond problematic” (2015). The director of the video, Joseph Khan, arguing that his diverse team exercised artistic integrity in choosing to reflect the historical reality of mid-century filmmaking in Africa, responded to criticisms with the following public statement:
The key creatives who worked on this video are people of color. I am Asian American, the producer Jil Hardin is an African American woman, and the editor Chancler Haynes is an African American man. We cast and edited this video. We collectively decided it would have been historically inaccurate to load the crew with more black actors as the video would have been accused of rewriting history. This video is set in the past by a crew set in the present and we are all proud of our work.(Goodman 2015)
In subsequent remarks, he defended the video by explaining that it alluded to “old Hollywood iconography” found in films like The African Queen (Timpf 2015).
It is my contention that Wildest Dreams actually does succeed in replicating an elusive dynamic of mid-twentieth-century filmmaking in Africa worthy of deeper consideration. Then, as now, the racially diverse composition of actors and experts involved in Africa-based film projects—black labor—disappeared behind a focus on white agency. Even contemporary debates over whether “Taylor Swift Is Dreaming of a Very White Africa,” as the NPR commentary expressed it, tend to frontline white acts and preserve the ideological presumption that filmmaking was an all-white enterprise in 1950s Africa.
The patient zero, of sorts, for Hollywood movies filmed on location in Africa is King Solomon’s Mines, which was shot on location in the Uganda Protectorate, the Kenya Colony, the Belgian Congo, Tanganyika, and Ruanda-Urundi between 1949 and 1950. The film tells the story of a British woman, Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr), accompanied by her brother, John Goode (Richard Carlson), who hires a professional hunter, Allan Quartermain (Stewart Granger) to locate her husband who disappeared somewhere in the African interior while searching for riches in the mines. Made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) for a modest U.S.$2,258,000, it earned U.S.$9,955,000—making it MGM’s most profitable film in 1950. As only the second feature-length American film to be shot in Africa and the first in color, the success of King Solomon’s Mines spurred a host of “filmed in Africa features”—including Kahn’s inspiration, The African Queen (dir. John Huston, 1951). Furthermore, “safari footage” of African dancers and savannah animals from King Solomon’s Mines became valuable...