Africa’s great sto­ries not do­ing so well at box of­fice

Sunday News (Zimbabwe) - - Culture/arts/education -

vastly tal­ented David Oyelowo in the lead. Since his ap­pear­ance in the film Selma some years back, David Oyelowo has been one of my favourite lead­ing black ac­tors. I try to watch ev­ery project he works on.

I fell in love with A United King­dom, not be­cause it was “well-acted, solidly crafted and all round wor­thy”, as crit­ics de­scribed it but more so be­cause it is a next door story that eas­ily res­onated with me. The story, about Seretse Khama find­ing love and the King­dom of Botswana, some­how made me see the pos­si­bil­ity of retelling some of Zim­babwe’s great sto­ries through film. One won­ders why we haven’t seen our own he­roes’ sto­ries on stage, books and even film — ex­cept per­haps for Flame. Is it a ques­tion of not hav­ing ca­pa­ble writ­ers to tell our sto­ries or no one in­ter­ested in in­vest­ing in our sto­ries? I think there are a lot of Zim­bab­weans — dead and alive — whose life sto­ries could make for in­ter­est­ing read­ing or films. Imag­ine the life of the likes of Ton­gog­ara and Look­out Ma­suku truth­fully told to wider au­di­ences. Imag­ine the sto­ries of Sally Mugabe, Beatrice Mtetwa, Jane Williams, and her Woza ac­tiv­i­ties, Jestina Mukoko, Joice Mu­juru and many oth­ers be­ing told to any­one who cared to lis­ten.

Seretse Khama’s story some­how re­vealed to me and ob­vi­ously to many like me who love telling African sto­ries that Africa is still an un­mined gold mine in terms of au­then­tic and in­spir­ing sto­ries — es­pe­cially sto­ries about love, re­silience and hu­man­ity.

When A United King­dom was re­leased Botswana had the same re­ac­tion as South Africa had when Man­dela’s film fea­tur­ing Idris Elba was re­leased. The pub­lic loved it. They lauded it as a great story that needed to be told to a big­ger au­di­ence. How­ever, lo­cal artistes cried foul, es­pe­cially about for­eign­ers be­ing paid hand­somely to play lead roles at their ex­pense. When Man­dela’s film was re­leased South African artistes, in­clud­ing leg­ends like John Kani, ques­tioned why a British ac­tor had been cast to play Man­dela when there were many South African ac­tors ca­pa­ble of con­vinc­ingly play­ing Man­dela.

Many crit­ics went on to con­demn Idris Elba’s ac­cent and por­trayal of the great man, Man­dela. The same hap­pened in Botswana; the or­di­nary per­son in the street was happy to see the story of their great Seretse Khama on the big screen but lo­cal artistes cried foul — they felt left out and sidelined. For Botswana it was worse. The lead roles went to es­tab­lished Hol­ly­wood and British ac­tors and the meaty sup­port­ing roles were given to es­tab­lished South Africa ac­tors like Vusi Kunene and Terry Pheto. In a way Batswana artistes were to­tal spec­ta­tors in their own story.

The cast­ing is­sue is ba­si­cally about business. It’s al­ways about the box of­fice. Pro­duc­ers pre­fer bank­able ac­tors play­ing leads so as to at­tract au­di­ences and in the process make loads of money. The prob­lem with most lo­cal ac­tors is that they are not known be­yond their own bor­ders and that tends to limit the mar­ket. Man­dela — Long Walk to Free­dom grossed over 28 mil­lion US dol­lars. Not re­ally bad. But per­haps it was the Man­dela magic that drew crowds to see movie. Queen of Katwe was a box of­fice flop — per­haps be­cause the story of the young chess player is un­known to most film au­di­ences — es­pe­cially in Europe. A United King­dom didn’t do so well too. It grossed about 14 mil­lion US dol­lars against a pro­duc­tion bud­get of the same fig­ure. At least it broke even. Poor per­for­mances at box of­fice con­tinue to be the great­est threat against African sto­ries be­ing told at big­ger stages. Poor box of­fice per­for­mances will con­tinue to haunt lo­cal artistes, es­pe­cially when it comes to play­ing lead char­ac­ters — the business side will al­ways in­flu­ence how films about Africa are made in Africa.

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