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Deadly Diseases, Violent Conflicts and White Saviors: Hollywood's Skewed Portrayal of Africa

Screen capture of the Trailer for the film Outbreak

Screenshot of the 1995 film “Outbreak.”

The latest outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa has killed at least 712 people so far, and hundreds of others are suspected to have died because of the illness. As fear of the virus spreads around the world, this very real international public health crisis has reminded some of a fictional crisis made into a movie nearly 20 years ago featuring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman, to name a few.

“Outbreak” tells the story of a made-up Ebola-like virus called Motaba first detected in the Democratic Republic of Congo and how US health agencies and the army contain its spread. At the onset of the film, two US soldiers destroy an African village where the virus was found in order to keep the deadly bug a secret. The bombing introduces the movie, but the plot moves away from the continent from that point on and the casualties at the village become an afterthought.

African casualties as an afterthought is a recurrent theme in many Hollywood films. Internet Movie Database suggests that they are roughly 1,367 films that mention the African continent. In four of the more popular ones, an African country strained by violence is the setting for a westerner to seek redemption: “Blood Diamond,” “Tears of the Sun,” “Lord of War” and “The Last King of Scotland.” In three other top-drawing films, Africans are unsuspecting subjects of medical experiments or various health hazards: “The Constant Gardener,” ”Outbreak” and “Sahara.” And let’s not forget to mention the factual inaccuracies found in films like ”I Dream of Africa,” ”Dark of the Sun” or the “Madagascar” trilogy.

While Hollywood has certainly matured regarding its view of the African continent since 1988′s “Coming to America” starring Eddie Murphy, it is still a rare sight to find a realistic portrayal of the continent from Hollywood moviemakers. As actor Ben Affleck contends, it seems that not many Hollywood producers are interested in movies about the African continent. Lest we forget that Hollywood is still responsible for molding most of the west‘s perspective on the rest of the world.

‘Heart of Darkness’ no more?

The days of calling the continent the “Heart of Darkness” are over, but the overarching feeling that the continent is not a safe place still looms large in more recent movies. The impact that this perception has on the economy and international relations still remains to be seen. But it's worthwhile to ask, would airlines companies have canceled their flights because of the Ebola scare as swiftly if the outbreak took place on a different continent? And is USA Basketball's decision to cancel their trip to Senegal because of the Ebola scare — although Senegal has not been affected by the virus — solely based on the outbreak or more general concerns regarding health safety throughout the continent?

This by no means is to suggest that the Ebola outbreak is not to be taken seriously. The situation on the ground is certainly and increasingly worrisome, with Liberia’s head of state Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf declaring Ebola a national emergency and neighbors such as Côte d’Ivoire ramping up prevention awareness. Yet the narrative about Africa is still favoring reactions like this tweet from The Economist:

Over tweets such as this one by Jina Moore:

Saverio Bellizzi, an epidemiologist with Doctors Without Borders in Guinea, agrees with Jina Moore’s tweet:

In Telimele, Guinea we achieved a significant reduction in mortality, down to 25 per cent, thanks to our relations of trust and dialogue with the local community. People would come to us within 48 hours from the first appearance of symptoms and we could provide them with the best assistance.

Perception matters because in the end, as opposed dropping bombs to stop the virus like shown in “Outbreak” the film, the most efficient real-world solution to stopping the spread might just “be more gloves and sterile syringes.”

Looking for partners, not saviors

Another pervasive narrative in Hollywood is that Africa is a “conflict-ravaged” continent. While violence has increased in recent years on the continent, a random traveler is as likely to stumble upon a conflict elsewhere as seen on this map of sites of ongoing armed conflicts worldwide :

Map of sites of ongoing armed conflicts worldwide by Lencer- CC BY-SA 3.0

Map of sites of ongoing armed conflicts worldwide by Lencer – CC BY-SA 3.0

The film “Tears of the Sun” portrays the usual framing of an African country ridden with violence in which westerners are trying to save lives. In one of the scene, Lt. A.K Waters, played by Bruce Willis, says:

It's been strongly suggested that we turn over Arthur and abandon these refugees out here in the bush. I'll tell you right now: I'm not gonna do that. Can't do that. Broke my own rule – started to give a fuck.

While picking on a scene in which one human being has decided to save his fellow human beings seems harsh, the prevailing sentiment here is that of despair for African refugees in much need of a white savior. Trouble is, western military interventions do not have a good success record in Africa. Just recently, Libya is in shambles, Mali is still very unstable and hundreds have died in the Central African Republic despite France’s military support.

A new Hollywood narrative about Africa is needed here. It is indeed quite telling that one of the most revered recent Hollywood films about Africa, “Invictus,” does not involve any foreign involvement. Invictus is the story of how South Africa developed towards a more united nation following the dismantling of apartheid. After all, the poem from which the movie title is drawn states emphatically:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

Follow our in-depth coverage: The Struggle to #StopEbola in West Africa

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