Two new films debut as Virtual Cinema today. Both address the hopes and the suffering of Africans, both in diaspora and on the continent.
“The Last Tree” is a coming-of-age story about Femi, a Nigerian boy growing up in a British housing estate. Despite the word “estate”, these buildings have much in common with housing projects in the USA and Paris’s banlieues. Grenfell Tower, where 72 people died in a fire as a result of negligence, was part of a housing estate. Coming-of-age films are not my favorite genre. “The Last Tree” soars above any I have seen since the sixties and is sure to be one of my picks for best films of 2020.
“Madagasikara,” the Malagasy name for Madagascar, documents the struggle for survival in an island nation just 250 miles off the east coast of Africa. This is a country of 26 million people with a per capita GDP of $471 per year, about half of Haiti’s. Although most people are aware of how Haiti became so poor, very little is known about Madagascar’s steep decline. Real income is only a third of what it was fifty years ago and imperialism is to blame.
When “The Last Tree” begins, we see an 11-year old Femi roughhousing with three white friends in the grassy hills near his foster parent Mary’s home in Lincolnshire. She too is white, as are most of his classmates. If foster homes summon up images of a Dickens novel, Femi’s situation is an outlier. He loves his home, his friends, his foster mom, and could not be happier.
The Dickens novel kicks in when his mother Yinka shows up out of the blue to spirit him away to her tiny apartment in a housing estate. She goes off to work each day, and she expects him to tidy up around the apartment when he returns from school as if he is Cinderella. When he falls short of his expectations, she spanks him. Ordered to stay indoors away from the temptations of the street, he looks down at children playing soccer from his balcony.
When he becomes a teen, he towers above Yinka, who is not above slapping him when he is out of order. Despite her attempts to keep him out of trouble, which amounts to house arrest, he begins to hang out with his pals from school until late at night doing what 17-years old do. Walking around, gossiping, and trying to find something fun to do in a barren, urban landscape.
Nothing gets between Femi and his mates, who, like him and practically all the other students, are African immigrants. Despite their shared racial identity, there is a color line in school. The darker you are, the more crap you have to endure. It doesn’t pay to be “too African”. Indeed, when he started grade school, Femi had to give a beating in the classroom to a student named Dean, an African immigrant, made fun of his name once too often. Having an African name or being too black puts you at a disadvantage.
Mace is a thirty-something African immigrant and gangster who strikes fear in the neighborhood. Since Femi has gained his reputation as a formidable fighter, Mace sees him as a potential recruit to his small-time crew. Out on the street, Mace and his top muscle, a goon named Dwayne, have accosted a white kid in his school uniform who they believe is snitching on them. When Femi approaches them, Mace asks him to force the much smaller boy to squeal like a pig. Mace and Dwayne enjoy the spectacle, but Femi not so much. At this point in his life, there is not much to enjoy. The only advantage to hooking up with Mace is earning some money as another muscle man.
One of his darker-skinned African classmates is a girl named Tope, who his pals like to bully. Femi has no issues with skin color and probably identifies with a girl who also has to put up with the kind of humiliation he once endured for his name. One day as he spots a couple of them giving her a hard time, he comes to her rescue. She is not sure what to make of him and still holds him at arm’s length.
The central theme of “The Last Tree” is the loss of African identity that comes with immigration to a country that colonized your ancestors. The film title refers to a visit to Nigeria with his mother, with whom he has reconciled. They visit his father, a wealthy Christian minister with a gold-plated elephant tusk on display on the ground floor of his mansion. Killing time, he walks over to the tusk and strokes it with a look on his face that says, “Who in the world would have such an ostentatious and wasteful object?” The moments spent in this man’s house and Femi’s eventual trip to the countryside to meet a Nigerian tribal holy man for a ritual that re-establish his identity are as memorable as any scene in an Ousmane Sembene film. Based on “The Last Tree”, I feel confident that director Shola Amoo is heir to his great legacy.
There is much in “The Last Tree” that will remind you of another coming-of-age film that I liked very much: “Moonlight”. In that film, the main character wrestles with his gay identity. In Amoo’s film, the hero wrestles with being an African in an epoch in which the American president can call your country of origin a “shithole”. In the Director’s Statement in the press notes, Amoo states:
“The Last Tree” is a rare example of a British film with a majority black cast, and having the opportunity to make a film like this in the UK is significant. We are still very much in our infancy when it comes to films about the British black experience. This is a story with a 90% black cast, focusing on the British African experience, but it isn’t the only story. There are a lot of stories that still need to be told.
You can watch the film on the Brooklyn Academy of Music site for $10. I doubt that anything made in Hollywood would surpass it this year, even if the studios were still pumping out the usual product.
The subtitle of “Madagasikara” is “the story of 3 women’s fight for survival”. They are Lin, Tina, and Deborah, eking out the barest of livings to support their young children, whether by chopping stones in a quarry or by prostitution. Director Cam Cowan follows them around on their daily rounds, and you wonder how they can make it to the next day. Survival is an overused word, but in this instance, it fits perfectly. With 93 percent of the population getting by on $2 a day, all Malagasy people face the same dire circumstances as the subjects.
Cowan was a law professor at U. of Virginia who learned about Madagascar from his students who were involved with a human rights project. So shaken by their reports, he left his profession to make a documentary about Madagascar over four years starting in 2014. Like many documentary filmmakers, he was not motivated by money (he also has an MBA from Columbia) but by a passion for justice.
Madagascar’s deep plunge into poverty is of fairly recent vintage. In the early 2000s, the country began to face economic problems like most heavily indebted agriculture-based nations. (Fifty percent of farmland grew food exports for South Korea.) As you might expect, politicians presented themselves as saviors to the nation, just like Donald Trump did in 2016. They would make Madagascar great again.
The worst of them was Marc Ravalomanana, who served as president between 2002 to 2009. As president, he carried out a neoliberal turn meant to reverse the former president Didier Ratsiraka statist-driven economic policies that while providing some benefits for the population were marred by the kind of corruption endemic to African republics. If you’ve seen the revolving door of Latin American countries like Brazil that went from Lula to Bolsonaro, you’ll understand what happened in Madagascar.
Ravalomanana’s chief opponent was Andry Rajoelina, who was just as committed to neoliberalism but who sold himself to the country as a great reformer. He came to power in 2009 through elections but soon transformed himself into a de facto dictator with the military’s support. Like many of the other low-life potentates around the world, Rajoelina is a scoundrel. His latest stunt is promoting herbal tea that supposedly prevents COVID-19. It is reminiscent of Thabo Mbeki’s promotion of folk medicine to cure AIDS.
To punish the government, the West imposed sanctions. As is so often the case, such as in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the main victims were poor people like the three women featured in the film. In a February 2019 interview, Cam Cowan was asked if he saw any hope for Madagascar. He was pessimistic but hoped the film would increase awareness. It certainly did for me.
The film does not get into Madagascar’s unique history, but it will pique your curiosity about a country unlike any other. Madagascar split from the Indian subcontinent around 88 million years. It was a monarchy until 1897 until it became a French colony. Like Haiti, economic desperation has driven small farmers deeper into once bounteous and diverse rainforests teeming with wildlife unique to the island. Supposedly, according to Wikipedia, about 40 percent of the island’s original forest cover was lost from the 1950s to 2000, with a thinning of remaining forest areas by 80 percent.
As for Cowan’s pessimism, I share it. But then again, I am pessimistic about the USA and the world for that matter. There was a time when Madagascar was on the front lines of revolutionary change. George Padmore, a Marxist from Trinidad, wrote an article for Left magazine in October 1947 titled “Madagascar Fights for Freedom” that might someday evoke future struggles in a country where there are no other options:
The revolt spread rapidly throughout the island, and incidents were reported at the towns of Vohipeng, Farafangana and Manaka. French aircraft bombed these places unmercilessly, as there were not sufficient French troops to stem the uprising. In Diego Suarez an army depot was plundered. The Malgash [Malagasy people] deputies sent a cable to the French Minister of Colonies, Marius Moutet, deploring the incidents and urging him to send a parliamentary mission to investigate the crisis. Official circles were not slow to hint that there was a definite connection between the Vietnam movement and the Malgash insurrection. Suspicion was directed against the deputy Ravoahangy who had been involved in the uprising of December, 1915.
“Madagasikara” will premiere on Amazon Prime and Docurama today, following up later with a wider release on iTunes, Google Play, Films for Action and others.