Mirror, Mirror on the Screen: A Story about Africa in Cinema
By Jude G. Akudinobi
Jude G. Akudinobi earned his PhD in cinema-television from the University of Souther California and teaches in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has written many different papers, reviews, and works for various places including, The Black Scholar, African Studies Review, and Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, among others.
The car glided to a stop. At least, that was how Dikeogu felt. Entering the lush “gated community”, squinting at what seemed like set-after-set of a very lavish budget Hollywood production and a reel of disorienting scenarios playing in his head, seemed like an out-of-body experience. An ornate fountain, at the center of the drive-way, adds a soothing, ethereal soundtrack, from the spouts and tinkles of water around an angel, with an enchanting poise and exquisite wings spread like a ballerina. Three gentle taps on the passenger-side window rouse him out of his reverie. He had not noticed Kathy get out of the car and walk around to him. Through the glass, he reads her lips which were saying, ‘We are here . . . !’ Stifling his embarrassment with an uneasy smile, he opens the door, nearly stumbling out.
Dikeogu, “from Africa”, had come on this visit at the insistence of Kathy and her grandparents, Grand Pa Sam, or GPS, as she affectionately refers to him, and Grand Dame Penelope, or GDP, her grandmother’s nickname. He had wondered about the “Grand Dame” moniker but Kathy laughed it off, saying that people think she has “an aristocratic bearing.” Kathy let out, too, that as a child, she was called TLC which, variously, stood for ‘The Loving Child’, ‘Tender Loving Child’, or, after her given name, ‘The Loving Catherine’. In her in late teens, however, she “opted for Kathy, as a preamble to a needful declaration of independence.” Her earnestness made Dikeogu giggle. According to her, both grandparents, retired physicians, “met during their Peace Corps years, fell in love with Africa and each other or, vice versa.” She has never been sure which love came first but it helped, though, that both share a passion for “Africa movies.”
GPS had been deliberately vague about this invitation and Dikeogu accepted it with a foreboding sense of adventure. As they walk up to the front-door, Kathy flashes him a reassuring smile. ‘Now, remember, just be your self.’ She pauses, looks him over gently, taps on the door and, without waiting, opens it. Inside, the delicate fragrance of fresh flowers fills the room and in a corner, next to a large-screen TV, a genial sixty-something-year-old man rises to greet them, from a handcrafted armchair, so meticulously accented with African motifs that it looks like a throne. He hugs Kathy who gently kisses him on both cheeks. They exchange brief affectionate looks, as he ruffles her hair tenderly, before stepping up.
‘Welcome…,’ he said, extending his hand.
‘Thank you…,’ Dikeogu replied, slightly flinching at the firm shake.
Kathy looks on, wrestling feebly with relief and apprehension. Silence. Leaning, and feigning confidentiality, GPS whispered into Kathy’s ears, before leading her out of earshot, and gently closing the door behind them. They exchange curious looks, and he nods beyond the door.
‘What about him,’ Kathy asks.
‘You’re not pregnant or anything…?’
‘Grand Pa, stop!’
‘Again, we are classmates. Law students with a passion for social justice… Nothing more!’
GPS thinks that over for a moment, then, tilting his head in an awkward gesture of penitence, smiles and nods.
‘Don’t forget,’ she smirks, mischievously. ‘Now, where’s Grand Ma?’
‘But she knew we were coming’
‘Something came up. Well, you know her… Never would pass up a cause for Africa’
‘Hmmm…,’ slightly rolling her eyes. ‘Malaria, Meningitis, Malnutrition…’
GPS’ forefinger across his lips, promptly, shut her up.
Alone, Dikeogu did a quick but scrupulous survey of the living room. He noticed that GPS had been reading a tourist magazine, with a special edition on Africa. Around the room, contemporary African art, sculpture, painting, masques, conceptual pieces, jockeyed for space with an eclectic collection of curious, clay and wooden objets d’art that the aura felt like a cross between a museum and a hip ‘post-colonial’ gallery.
It was early evening by the time GPS had finished regaling them with reminiscences “about life in the bush”, including advice, before his departure for the Peace Corps service, from “well-meaning people” some of which, even then, he thought were crazy. Others, “more circumspect”, advised against nationalists, communists, carnivorous cockroaches, reptiles and hepatitis. His mother only wished he would bring home an African princess. Neither the fears nor romantic wishes came true. Even then, his mother never stopped calling GDP “her African princess”.
As they drive out, Kathy asks, ‘So, where are we going?’
‘To Africa’, GPS replies, calmly.
‘Just wait and see’
They pull up at an exclusive country club where the valet, dressed in faux Royal uniform, ushers them into the lobby, with affected courtesy. Very briefly, Dikeogu considers affecting an RP British accent, which he heard that Americans were deferential to, but settles for going with the flow, as if used to the atmosphere and lifestyle, since birth. Golden-toned background music, flowers, props, refreshments, and such opulent attention to detail! He saunters over to the bar and emerging with a full wine glass in hand, joins Kathy who is looking at a big film foster, spotlighted near a theater entrance.
Dikeogu glances around surreptitiously, before pinching himself. GPS is chatting so casually with people Dikeogu had only seen on TV, in newspapers and magazines. Kathy and Dikeogu exchange meaningful glances as it dawns on them, that they are at an exclusive preview soiree. It dawns on him, even more, that Kathy, ever so modest on campus, comes from a background of the type referred to as “old money”. He takes a closer look at the poster and winces. In it, a latex-gloved hand leads a forlorn African child away from a background of absolute havoc. Kathy shuffles her feet, uncomfortably, as they read the tag line: Somewhere in the depths of Africa, a relief mission goes wrong, awfully wrong.
After the screening, they had dinner in a private booth, and, as they drove away, GPS let out a chuckle.
‘What’s so funny, Grand Pa?’
‘Things, here and there, they got wrong in the film’
‘And, that’s funny?’
‘I was a consultant for the film’
‘Hey, I know Africa’
‘Don’t be too sure’, Dikeogu cuts in, to the relief of Kathy who falls silent, there after.
‘I have lived over there, and know Africa’
‘Which Africa, or, rather, whose Africa do you know so well?’
‘I am nearly seventy and was there, perhaps, before your dad was born’
‘So, what is the problem?’
‘These types of films… Their exotic and abject Africa’
‘But it was filmed on location…’
‘And marked with stamps of authenticity’, Dikeogu interrupts, sarcastically.
‘I wouldn’t quite put it that way’.
‘Let me put it this way, then… African cinema will have its say, some day’
‘No doubt… The correct quote, though, is: “History will one day have its say”’
‘That, too. Knew Lumumba…?
‘That was from a farewell letter to his wife, Pauline’
‘Know who killed him…?
GPS stares ahead, without further words. Fleeting lights and shadows of the road complicate discerning his thoughts or emotions. They drive in silence for what seems like eternity. Dikeogu digs deeper into his seat convinced he would be tossed out, any moment. As if on a cue, Kathy’s nervous cough breaks the silence. GPS clears his throat and, without any hint of bitterness, says, nodding to Dikeogu, ‘OK… I see your point’.
As they headed back to campus, later, Dikeogu made a mental note to include a copy of Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write about Africa in his thank-you card to GPS and GDP.
That night, in bed, GPS tossed and turned so much that GDP, ordinarily a gentle soul, was forced to rouse him. Awakened, he turned to her, with puzzlement in his eyes.
‘Who are you?’
‘Funny…,’ raising her brows. ‘Very funny’
‘Hey…,’ passing a hand over his eyes. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Princess… The African Princess… Who else?’
‘That rings a bell…’
GDP watches him, closely. For a while, he does not move. Then, he tweaked his nose, sighs, and tries, unsuccessfully, to disguise his embarrassment.
‘Oh, forget it’
‘What was that all about, then…?,’ lifting her hand to touch his cheek, gently. After a while, he clears his throat but says nothing. He appears quite rattled. She notices his hands begin to clench, then taps him on a shoulder. He shrugs and, following a deep breath, speaks…
‘As dreams go, we were in New York, at the New York African Film Festival, and had just watched this documentary, by a young African woman, titled: Please, Wait Here.’
He stops, abruptly, staring at the ceiling. GDP waits expectantly, becoming increasingly impatient at the suspense. Instinctively, she looks at the ceiling, studying it as if for clues, before taking his hand.
‘Are you OK…?’
‘I can’t talk about this easily… The dehumanizing experiences of Africans at airport immigration posts, around the world’
‘Security, contrabands, human trafficking, perhaps…?’
‘Hmmm…,’ GDP replied, pensively rubbing her lower chins.
‘In one scene, a pregnant African professor, invited as the keynote speaker of a prestigious scholarly conference, recounts how she was subjected to invasive and unnecessary cavity searches’
Pulling GDP closer, GPS tells of how the director’s wit and engaging demeanor, during the question-and-answer session, reminds him of Lupita Nyong’o accepting the Oscar for her work in 12 Years a Slave. Pooling resources for the documentary, without any government support, even had, according to her, “the hooks and twists of a situation comedy”. For example, some government officials, “the sympathetic ones, cited priorities and offered only moral support”. Other responses ranged from hostility, indifference, to concerns about how the film will affect “international relations”. The latter, she said, drawing laughter from the audience, was euphemism for foreign aid, largely, from the West. Even then, she turned down “Trojan gifts from certain NGOs, advocacy groups, donor agencies, to maintain artistic integrity and creative autonomy”. Amidst the spirited exchanges between the director and audience, a lock turned in the heart of an elderly, Black woman. Her arthritic conditions were perceptible as she walked to the microphone, set near the podium, for comments and questions. Very calmly, she waited her turn and, between emotional gulps, pledged to finance the director’s next project, whatever it may be, and bankroll the festival’s next edition, without strings. The eclectic audience was so stunned one could have heard a pin drop. Then, the applause roared…
‘And, that was when you woke me up.’
Their eyes meet and linger. Hers are moist with tears and, soon after, his.