Spout Mavens Disc #8: Africa Unite (2007)

Africa Unite
Director: Stephanie Black // 2007// Documentary
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

I didn’t really think about it at the time, but in retrospect, it almost seems like the arrival of the Africa Unite screener from Spout in late January was an intentional tie-in to the annual Black History month held the following month. After all, watching it and reviewing it would, if things went the normal course, cause my own review to be placed up on Spout in that month of African-American celebration. I, myself, am not, to the best of my knowledge, of that particular descent, except perhaps in the manner that we all are of this planet descended eventually by way of that continental plate. But this does not mean that I don’t have any great interest in this very important, and generally neglected, aspect of the history books. It’s just that I was thinking, at the time of its arrival, as Africa Unite being a mere “concert film.”

Unfortunately, circumstance precluded a viewing of the screener occurring in my household until just last night, the final night of Black History Month, and just after I had found myself caught up in its celebration throughout the previous couple of weeks – purely by accident. Spike Lee’s Bamboozled showed up in my mailbox from Netflix, although I had already seen the film a couple of times, and had quite forgotten it was still in my queue after I had already seen it on cable so many months before. I took a nap one night, and awoke to find Jen watching Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s exemplary PBS series African-American Lives, mainly because it was the only thing interesting she could find on television. A most intriguing twenty minutes of the tail end of that episode found me watching the whole of its next showing, and then recording its next two-hour installment, so captivating is its take on both African-American culture – and American culture in general. Finally, our first trip to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach found ourselves also taking in the African Heritage Festival being held in its open areas, where I was able to peruse firsthand much of the segregationist signage and openly racist commercial products of the twentieth century (as well as catch up on my George Washington Carver knowledge).

And still, I didn’t think to include Africa Unite in this mix, believing it to be pretty much a straightforward concert built around the 60th birthday celebration of the late reggae superstar Bob Marley. A listing of the names in the credits was enough to make me believe this, featuring a plethora of Bob’s many similarly surnamed offspring and widow Rita, as well as listing the Fugees’ gorgeous Lauryn Hill in the mix, as well as a few other world music stars, like Angelique Kidjo (who is marvelous in her brief footage). The other reason for my misconception is my need to not be influenced by packaging and outside critical opinions. Thus, I did not read the three paragraphs on the back of the DVD, which would have illuminated me as to the actual contents of the film.

Not that I would have necessarily sought this movie out apart from getting a copy of it from Spout, but if I had run into it eventually, I would have been surprised (as I was last night upon watching it) that it isn’t that standard “concert film” of which I assumed it to be. Because, what I found myself really faced with was both a sobering lesson in the damages that colonialism wrought upon the people of the continent, and also the stirrings of a surge of hope that perhaps the youth of Africa, by uniting (hence the title) -- beyond any of the borders laid down upon them when their continent was sliced into digestible sections by European rule and plunder – as one people, they can rise above the many problems that keep it a second-class citizen – poverty, disease (especially the ravaging menace of HIV), and the war that divides numerous African nations internally – even in the third world. Danny Glover, a producer here and celebrity promoter of the concert and cause, delivers a stirring speech a third of the way through that makes one wish he would quit the bad movies in which he has largely been mired for the last few years and use his fame to fight even more for his personal and political beliefs.

There are concert sequences to be had (and perhaps too few of them), but at least half of the film is dedicated to laying out the foundation of the “united Africa” vision, included old newsreel footage from the ‘30s through the ‘70s. Especially interesting to me, after some thirty years of hearing Marley and his ilk sing the praises of Haile Selassie, was to be given the opportunity to learn more about the man -- though they would say “living god,” an appellation with which I personally hold zero faith -- who inspired them. Hearing his name invoked in song, or singing along with Rastafarian phrasing is one thing; to be able to see large sections of film footage about the late Ethiopian emperor and groundbreaking African leader, and to allow him to become an actual once-living being in one’s mind, is a very powerful thing indeed. Combined with explanations and film footage about the Belgian Congo and other colonial clashes with the rightful citizenry of the various lands, it all helps the viewer put a political context to the music at last. Sure, one could do the footwork on their own and discover this information, but most people – even those who would most benefit from its discovery – won’t go that far. Better to use the allure of some grand music and famous musicians, including one of the most famous in the history of entertainment, to help open people’s minds to the possibilities in store for Africa.

My one major gripe with the film is that it could have easily been a half hour longer, by pumping up the live music portions for that extra time. Sure, the full DVD apparently comes with “Over 45 Minutes of Complete Concert” footage as a bonus feature, but knowing this without readily available access does me no good, and as I have now seen the film and only have a minor interest in reggae, I will likely never see this footage. (And did Lauryn Hill actually go all the way to Ethiopia for this conference and not perform?)

Sure, this Africa Unite thing could all be a pipe dream (or a spliff dream, given we are speaking here of reggae), since the plan hinges on people from tribes from many disparate regions actually getting along and working together. It’s one thing to say “Hey, we are all going to get along!” but it’s another thing to practice it. You might also cynically state, “This cooperation never really works here; why should it there?” But the game of the cynic (and I have often been lumped into their company throughout my life, and sometimes rightfully) is a tired one, especially in a situation such as this, where sometimes the hope of brighter days ahead is all that carries these people forward through the pain that sometimes can overtake reality. It’s one of the reasons I can never wholly discount the faith that others place on their religious beliefs, despite my own atheism, because if there is something that allows people some sort of hope for the future – whether it be political or personal freedom, or even a belief in what I consider to be a fantasy afterlife – and it makes them happier and better people to belief this, then so be it. Whether or not I agree with the tenets of Rastafari is beside the point. As long as this dream for a united Africa is achieved through non-violence and the democratically derived consent of the vast majority of its peoples, anyone of any faith (or lack of it) can speak up to bring it to fruition.

And Africa needs a whole lot of people believing in the same dream to help it reach that brighter future. Africa Unite is a good starting primer on this dream.


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