‘Why weren’t we taught this at school?’ asks star of Rwanda drama

Michaela Coel tells Nosheen Iqbal how mak­ing the BBC hit Black Earth Ris­ing has given her an ed­u­ca­tion in the 1994 geno­cide

The Observer - - News -

Hugo Blick makes a habit of writ­ing and di­rect­ing tele­vi­sion that has high­minded am­bi­tion to el­e­vate the form and ed­u­cate his au­di­ence. Black Earth

Ris­ing, a drama about the pros­e­cu­tion of in­ter­na­tional war crimes – specif­i­cally the Rwan­dan geno­cide – is no ex­cep­tion.

Co-pro­duced by the BBC and Net­flix, the first episode aired last week to a string of five-star re­views and 1.1 mil­lion view­ers. It is an im­pres­sive share of the Sun­day night au­di­ence, all the more con­sid­er­ing the com­plex na­ture of the story.

“It doesn’t rest at the geno­cide,” says Blick. “It takes geno­cide as its ig­ni­tion point for in­jus­tices that are still out­stand­ing on both sides of this equa­tion.”

Blick and his star, Michaela Coel, ar­rive at the BBC to noisy rev­er­ence; Black Earth Ris­ing is among the au­tumn’s most ex­pen­sive flag­ship shows. Blick says it takes square aim at the hypocrisies of the in­ter­na­tional crim­i­nal court and at what he says is a lack of knowl­edge of a mas­sacre that saw an es­ti­mated mil­lion peo­ple murdered in 100 days. “It was the most in­ten­sive eth­nic slaugh­ter in the 20th cen­tury,” says Blick. “I am very con­cerned that peo­ple aren’t aware.”

Hav­ing es­tab­lished the premise last week – cen­tred on the Rwan­dan refugee and crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tor Kate Ashby (Coel) – through some hefty ex­po­si­tion, tonight’s episode is set to zip the au­di­ence through the atroc­i­ties of the re­cent past. The show is de­signed to be talked about and, in turn, spot­light the events and con­se­quence of the 1994 geno­cide.

“So much comes up on our Twit­ter feeds,” says Cole. “There is stuff and out­rage about wars and history. But why didn’t we hear about this? Why didn’t I know?” Did she re­ally know noth­ing about Africa’s re­cent history? She shrugs and ad­mits: “It’s a long time for it not to come on to my radar.”

Cole, 30, grew up on an es­tate in Lon­don and made her name with

Chew­ing Gum, her self-penned, Baftaw­in­ning E4 sit­com. This show has de­liv­ered her first dra­matic role, her

first visit to Ghana (where Black Earth Ris­ing was filmed and where, in­ci­den­tally, Coel’s fa­ther and ex­tended fam­ily live) and her first ex­po­sure to the con­flict in Rwanda and the sub­se­quent Congo wars.

To her and Blick, the era­sure of these con­flicts is ap­palling. “I know Bri­tish history, I know Amer­i­can history,” says Cole. Any­thing she has learned since “is not be­cause of school­ing,” says Blick. Cole’s re­search – which took in read­ing Tim Butcher’s Blood River and Stephen Kinzer’s A Thou­sand Hills – and the 128-day shoot, she says, changed her life. “I went to a Catholic school for my sec­ondary school and there just wasn’t a cu­rios­ity there. I am cu­ri­ous now. I am learn­ing.”

She has been back to Ghana twice since the shoot ended.

Still, for all the ac­claim and buzz on so­cial me­dia about the show, Cole does not be­lieve her gen­er­a­tion are as woke as they claim. “Come on now, no, no, no. They have a Twit­ter feed, which taught them ‘#woke’. But that isn’t African history. That isn’t even our history, it isn’t the real Bri­tish history. We’re not taught that and it means we grow up not car­ing and see­ing ev­ery­thing else as be­ing kept in sep­a­rate boxes.” She turns to Blick. “That means we get to a place where we say: ‘How can you tell that story? You’re not African.” Blick is well aware that sto­ries about Africa are of­ten told through the lens of white western men like him and that a con­ti­nent of 54 coun­tries can of­ten be re­duced to nar­row stereo­type and cliche. “One has agency to pur­sue the truth re­gard­less,” he says. “Am I re­spon­si­ble for in­sti­tu­tional racism?”

Cole nods. “I’ve never heard it put like that be­fore. Be­cause you do hear peo­ple go, ‘How could a white man tell that story?’ But do you need to be the same race as the sto­ries you re­port?”

Last month, Cole stunned the au­di­ence at the Ed­in­burgh TV fes­ti­val by de­liv­er­ing the key­note MacTag­gart lecture in which she re­vealed the racism and sex­ual as­sault she had suf­fered while work­ing in the in­dus­try. Her ac­count was sear­ing and hon­est and re­port­edly brought au­di­ble gasps from the au­di­ence.

Did she worry about dam­ag­ing her ca­reer or find­ing work again? Blick jumps in. “I’d hire her again,” he says, as Cole plays down the af­ter­math with a fixed smile. “I would just hope that peo­ple get to see the whole story and not just snip­pets.”

Michaela Coel, left, in the BBC drama and, be­low, di­rec­tor Hugo Blick.

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