‘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
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.