Despite being a gigantic continent influenced by dramatic social changes, undergoing political unrest and turbulent economic transitions, Africa also possesses one of the richest cultural heritages in the world. In particular, over the past few decades, African cinema has begun to experience greater international recognition. From South Africa to Kenya, Angola to Senegal, our selection of 10 movies is a vibrant celebration of the continent and an essential glimpse into modern day Africa today.
Original and timelessly charming, the smash-hit The Gods Must Be Crazy is one of the most popular comedies to come out of the African continent. Essentially a story about the profound difference between two cultures, it is a movie of cultural communication and curiosity. Following a bushman who discovers a coke bottle dropped by a passing plane, the object is considered a gift from the gods by his local village. In an effort to track down its meaning, he endeavors to travel to the edge of the world to destroy it. In the process, he crosses paths with a clumsy biologist, a schoolteacher, a reporter and a band of revolutionaries looking to overthrow the government. Hilarious from start to finish, the movie is a comical allegory of the clash of modern civilization and old-world African traditions.
Black Girl is considered to be one of the first Sub-Saharan African movies by an African filmmaker to gain international recognition. Following the story of Diouana, a young woman from Dakar, the plot sees her move to France to become a nanny for a wealthy French couple – with time, she realizes that she is no more than a slave to the family. With beautiful black and white images, Ousmane Sembène’s film is a poignant story of cultural alienation, much of which is still present in European communities today, as well as a powerful commentary on long-standing issues of colonialism and racism.
Kenyan drama From A Whisper is based on events surrounding the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. Directed by African Movie Academy Award winner Wanuri Kahiu, the movie has won numerous awards and explores the lingering impact of the violent attack by casting a spotlight on its victims and their families. It focuses on a young intelligence officer, Abu, who meets a rebellious artist in search of her mother. As their relationship develops, conversation brings up Abu’s memories of his best friend, killed the in US embassy bomb attack a decade previously. Ultimately, the movie examines the hardship of loss, the futility of friendship and an individual’s attempts to come to term with his, or her, faith.
As a Senegalese village falls further into poverty, the village elders must sell the town possessions to pay off their debts. When a former resident, Linguère, returns to the place of her birth, the villagers hope that she will be the town’s benefactor and appoint a local grocer, who used to court her in her youth, to persuade her to part with her wealth. However, the woman has other plans and she has already returned with the intention of sharing her millions – yet, there is a price to pay. Hyenas gives an insight into African poverty and the element of human folly. Based on the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1959 play ‘The Visit,’ the movie similarly highlights the ways in which money does, ultimately, rule the world.
Hotel Rwanda is a heart-wrenching historical drama about the genocide that took place in Rwanda over a decade ago. As one of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind took place on the African continent, in which over 1 million people were murdered in just 3 months, ashamedly the world looked the other way. Terry George’s movie follows an ordinary family man with the extraordinary courage to help thousands of displaced refugees by providing them with shelter in the hotel he manages. Focusing on the madness of genocide and the violent inhumanity of war, the movie gives audiences an insight into Rwanda’s dark history but also casts a new perspective on the power of instinctual heroism.
Set in a futuristic Africa occupied by extra-terrestrial beings, Neill Blomkamp’s independent science fiction feature District 9 focuses on an alien race forced to live in terrible conditions on Earth. Imprisoned in a militarized internment camp called District 9, the beings find help in a government agent exposed to their biotechnological abilities. An award-winning fantasy thriller, District 9 is gritty and realistic and a welcome entry compared to the humdrum Hollywood plotlines so often reserved for the sci-fi genre. Exploring the relationship between humans and their society, the movie evokes a gripping realism that ensures this is unlike anything audiences will have seen in years.
Sambizanga is set in 1961 during the onset of the Angolan War of Independence and documents the struggles of the local militants involved in the liberation of the country. Based on a novella by Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira, the film follows the plight of a revolutionary and his imprisonment by the Portuguese colonialists. Threatened with torture and death for not exposing his fellow dissidents, the movie also casts a profound light on the role of women in the conflict, the prisoner’s wife Maria in particular, who goes from prison to prison desperately in search of her husband. A feature of great political significance and a profile on the African liberation movement, Sambizanga has won recognition at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as on other international platforms.
Set in a city slum in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tsotsi follows events surrounding a young street thug who steals a car. Discovering a child in the back seat, he finds redemption through the care of the young infant and an unforeseen change overcomes him. The movie is a deeply moving portrait of suffering in contemporary Africa and the tragedy of social isolation amongst lost communities. Away from the modern urban dramas so often forced by Hollywood, this raw story remains real and is told with a powerful conviction – it is unsurprising that Tsotsi won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and remains one of the best movies to come out of the South African film industry.
Produced by independent filmmaker Lionel Rogosin, who mostly worked in secret in fear of deportation, Come Back, Africa has had a profound impact on African cinema since its release in 1959. Today, it is a source of great historical, political and cultural importance in documenting the hardships of South African apartheid in the 1950s. Despite being based on a fictional narrative, it portrays real individuals who play out their own lives or of those they know – in particular, the feature follows the life of Zachariah, a black young man living under the rule of the harsh government. As a rare piece of docu-fiction, it addresses the issue of racism before the ‘rainbow nation’ ideology of contemporary South Africa set in, exposing the consequences of racial segregation, much of which remains inherent to modern African societies today.
After Hollywood and Indian Bollywood, Nigeria’s film industry is the next largest in the world, releasing over 200 movies every month. One of the first to gain an international audience was the comedy Osuofia in London, now one of the highest selling Nollywood films of all time. Following in the steps of Hollywood, the feature employs sharp filming techniques, advanced equipment and a co-production of African and US talent. The Nigerian comedy stars African Movie Academy Award Winner Nkem Owoh, in his portrayal of a native villager who travels to London to claim his share of inheritance. Hilariously funny, the movie provides a highly enjoyable glimpse into contemporary Nigerian culture.