Africa can be a scary place. Constant wars ravage its landscape, world politics divide its resources, and economic pressures exploit its people. So taking that long-planned-for vacay to The Dark Continent might not be the best idea in the current social climate. But that hasn’t stopped filmmakers from focusing on Africa’s intrigues. That’s why we’re celebrating the best African flicks that you can watch right from the comfort of your own couch!
Ok, so this flick’s African-cred is questionable, but to many viewers in 1932 it gave the continent a very mysterious and magical (and spooky) aura. The movie began life – or unlife – as a tale about a 3,000 year old magician who terrorizes a then-modern-day San Francisco. It was meant to capitalize on Universal’s success with both Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). When screenwriters came across tales of the opening of King Tut’s Tomb, which happened in 1921, they re-worked the script to feature similar elements.
If you’re one of those unfortunate souls that think the Lord of the Rings movies are the absolute pinnacle of fantasy cinema, it’s time to step out of the darkness and into the light. The world is full of fantastic flicks (that are really good, too!) and Yeelen is one of them. We’re not trying to diminish LOTR – it’s a lot of fun – but it has its place in world cinema. And while Yeelen may not have the budget of Peter Jackson’s trilogy, it is an outstanding example of a Bambaran myth come to life.
This movie is on the list for a couple of reasons. First, it’s an a-maz-ing film. Secondly, it’s loosely based on Melville’s Billy Budd, an a-maz-ing novella. Thirdly, it is the only flick here that is written and directed by a woman. Claire Denis’s story, set in Djibouti, focuses on a regiment of French Foreign Legionnaires. The commanding officer becomes inexplicably jealous of one of the new recruits, and things go bad from there. Shot on-location, this flick explores the culture of the area as much as it does the psyche of the European soldiers stationed there with extreme subtlety. It’s an excellent example of post-colonial cinema.
As a rule, it’s best to avoid movies about real-life tragedy produced by Hollywood. Often when the world’s biggest movie making machine gets its hands on a story of actual human importance, it strips away a lot of the actual humanity of the tale. A notable exception is Hotel Rwanda, not because it subverted the Henry Ford model of movie-making that still permeates a lot of the American film industry, but because it put the spotlight on an atrocity that the western world largely ignored. We have to give credit where it’s due.
The Naked Prey
What’s this? A movie set in Africa about a white explorer facing off with an angry tribe? Sure, this movie might lend itself more to pop-corn-flick status rather than high art, but Cornel Wilde’s adventure tale is uniquely gritty and surprisingly violent for the era. And because of writer-director-star Wilde’s care, the film is not nearly as (overtly) xenophobic as the plot summary would suggest.
The Battle for Algiers
This film is about the Algierian revolution that eventually ended the French occupation of the country. An Italo-Algieran co-production directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, this was a controversial movie that wasn’t screened in France for six years after its release. It’s an incredibly gritty and realistic portrait of war, from the perspective of the participants.
Let’s just get one thing straight: you’ve never seen a movie like Touki Bouki. A bizarrely surreal portrait of Sengalese street life, it was a product of a small boom in the country’s film industry in the early 1970’s. It’s an intimate look at the relationship of two young people trying to escape the terrible conditions of their home country; but it never lacks for a sense of hope. Written and Directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty, arguably one of the entire continent’s greatest filmmakers, this is a can’t-miss, one-of-a-kind flick for anyone looking for a real look at modern life in a different place.
Note: Vegans beware! The movie opens with the real-life slaughter of a bull. And while it’s in no way sadistically done (Mambéty shot it in an actual slaughterhouse) it is quite graphic.