“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even the past.”
This is a line repeated a few times in the series Black Earth Rising. It’s a paraphrasing of Faulkner, but it’s appropriate here as Kate Ashby sifts through conspiracies both large and small to find the truth that’s been hidden from her and from the world. The series does a deep-dive into Rwandan politics surrounding the genocide in 1994, and the external powers that were then and are now still attempting to benefit from a presence in the African nation. It is also about personal identity. How we know and understand ourselves, and the contradictions that can live in the human heart.
The series opens with Eve Ashby (Harriet Walker), an international prosecution barrister, answering questions in front of a group of students. A black student challenges her on her authority to prosecute African war criminals at the Hague, making the point that the Europeans made the mess in Africa and should leave Africans to fix it. Eve argues back strongly that justice at the Hague may be the only justice these men face and that European war criminals receive the same treatment, but the tense exchange sets the tone for the show; there are not easy answers to these problems and we should all be uncomfortable with that. We then meet Eve’s daughter, Kate (Michaela Coel), whom Eve adopted while working in Rwanda after the genocide. Kate was a desperately ill orphan air-lifted from a refugee camp and knows nothing of her birth family or even what her name was prior to living with Eve. She currently works as a legal investigator for Micheal Ennis (John Goodman), and recently had a non-fatal suicide attempt. Kate and Eve have a strained relationship, but one that seems genuinely loving at its core. The first episode ends with them in conflict, as Kate has taken on a case for the Hague that would have her prosecuting a man who is seen as a hero, who helped stop the Rwandan genocide, for crimes he has committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the more recent past. From there the series quickly spirals into international conspiracies, murders, cover-ups, and a hunt for a truth that has been buried for decades.
I was hesitant to review this show even though it had me riveted because I am so drastically unqualified to speak to the various political motivations and machinations that begin to turn from this point out. To reveal them would be to spoil them, but the story winds its way through the highest levels of the military and government in France as well as Rwanda as more and more threads start to unravel. We see conversations between politicians and heads of state from Rwanda about their country’s history and efforts to move forward in the world. Most of them had a role in the civil war that preceded the genocide. The political and personal relationships between these people are complex, and the show does not stop to hold the viewer’s hand as these relationships play out. I was aware of the Rwandan genocide, but I did end up learning more, both from the show and my own research inspired by the show, about the current political difficulties in the region and the civil war that began years before the Tutsi genocide. If you are interested in seeing African politics and political leaders portrayed on screen in ways that assume knowledge and allow for shades of gray in the characters themselves the way we see in political thrillers set in Europe and the US, this is a show you will want to watch.
Beyond the political background, the show is also about Kate Ashby and her search to understand her mother, her past, and the country she left as a child. Michaela Coel is mesmerizing, it’s impossible to not be riveted to her striking and expressive face. She is alternately anxious, confident, confrontational, afraid, physically intimidating, subdued, confused, sad, enraged, and bereft at turns. Kate Ashby is a hugely demanding role and Coel is more than up to the task. John Goodman as her mentor and protector is a solid scene partner for her, but his role is overall less demanding. Other stand-outs in the cast include Tamara Tunie as the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Noma Dumezweni as a former general in the Rwandan Patriotic Army and friend of Eve and Michael, and Lucian Msamati as a special advisor to the Rwandan president.
There are flaws in the series; some characters and encounters feel underdeveloped, plots jump very quickly at different points, and parts of the climactic confrontation seemed abrupt, but these are minor storytelling issues that pale in comparison to the huge emotional and intellectual impact the series had on me. I want to consider myself better-educated about African history and issues than the average American, but the truth is that I’m only barely less ignorant than most. The series ends on a note that is not quite hopeful but not quite bleak. It makes it clear that there are still many challenges facing the characters and Rwanda as a whole. Telling the truth is not a silver bullet. The day to day work of running a country without being openly corrupt or criminal is not glamorous or exciting, but it’s necessary. Understanding the truth and history of the country is also necessary for it to move forward. As an American, I’m watching my own country grapple with pieces of its history both personal and political, and I find myself thinking that the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even the past.