These days, you rarely hear Africa described as the Dark Continent unless the speaker is trying to seem worldly, sarcastic and disapproving. But movies are doing a pretty good job of keeping the old stereotype alive. Two new African-themed dramas are showing on local screens—the big-budget Bruce Willis military epic Tears of the Sun and the more modest Nowhere in Africa, Germany’s entry for the foreign-language Oscar. On the surface, they could not be more different, but deep down, they’re the same movie. Both the hardbitten U.S. soldiers of Tears and the Jewish refugees of Nowhere are tested against, and by, their environment. The black characters in both films are there mainly to help the whites become better people.
Tears unexpectedly turns out to be the more interesting movie, not because it works—in the end, it doesn’t—but because it’s fun to watch director Antoine Fuqua and his collaborators try to complicate an uncomplicated, even propagandistic story. Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo’s script is a Tom Clancy variation on those gringos-in-Mexico movies that became so popular during the 1960s—The Magnificent Seven, The Professionals, The Wild Bunch and their ilk. Those movies weren’t really about Mexico, of course; they were about America’s perceived obligation to police unruly nonwhite nations. So is Tears.
Willis stars as Lt. Waters, the leader of a Navy SEAL team that’s sent to Nigeria to rescue Americans stranded there after vicious rebels execute the royal family. (Nothing like this is currently happening in Nigeria; the press notes describe the plot as a fictionalization of events in other African countries.) Waters’ assignment is to pick up a doctor, a priest and two nuns (insert punch line here). But Willis’ commander (Tom Skerritt, still coddling maverick Navy hotshots 16 years after Top Gun) only reveals the name of one of them during his briefing. She’s Dr. Lena Kendricks, and I have to assume we’re supposed to be more interested in her because she’s played by Monica Bellucci, the voluptuous Italian import whose p.r. handlers won’t let up until they’ve turned her into the new Sophia Loren.
When Waters’ team finds her, she agrees to go only if the SEALs take a passel of locals with them to the drop zone. The trek unfolds with some panache (and excellent nighttime jungle photography by Mauro Fiore). Then Fuqua, the shallow but proficient director of The Replacement Killers and Training Day, springs an intriguingly ugly surprise on the audience, one that threatens to make Tears into a serious film that highlights and questions American self-interest.
It turns out to be a speed bump on the road to the usual action movie outcome. Tears isn’t as fatuous as Behind Enemy Lines—a fake-serious war picture that pimped Bosnia imagery to hide the fact that it was a videogame with actors—but it’s still suspect. Suffice to say that the formerly icy Waters suddenly bucks orders, invites a court martial and endangers the lives of his men to help Kendricks and her nonwhite charges.
Where do the Nigerians fit into this? As in Black Hawk Down, this film’s black Africans fall into two groups: tearful bystanders and glowering, beret-clad murderers. They’re meant to stand in for the citizens of any foreign nation that’s been overrun by thugs and desperately needs America’s help. It’s a timely hook. In a sense, Waters’ dilemma dramatizes America’s foreign policy transition from Bush I and Clinton to Bush II—from get-in-and-get-out self-interest to a risky, even reckless zeal to destroy "evil" and install good in its place. Fuqua and his writers complicate the hero’s evolution here and there, particularly during a horrifying, surprisingly serious sequence in which Waters’ unit raids a village whose inhabitants are being raped and exterminated by rebels. One of the victims is a nursing mother whose breasts have been hacked off; a rebel soldier, promptly offed by the Americans, turns out to be a mere boy.
But for the most part, the film makes Waters’ choice seem emotionally and morally inevitable, and leaves no room for objection, rational or otherwise. Fear of black savagery hovers over every frame of the picture; Waters even warns Kendricks early on that if she doesn’t leave the mission, the rebels will do unspeakable things to her. (Bellucci, who burst onto the international scene playing a prostitute in Malena and is currently being buggered and beaten in Irreversible, has built her career on defilement.)
Yet despite this racist trope, the filmmakers still try to convert skeptical African-American viewers via one of Waters’ men, Ellis, a black soldier played by Eamonn Walker of Oz. Ellis is given a chaste romantic subplot with Kendricks’ charming assistant, and he endorses Waters’ interventionist impulses by telling him, "Those Africans are my people, too." Waters replies: "For our sins."
Tears even finishes with Edmund Burke’s famous line, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." A central irony not noted by the filmmakers is that in the end, Waters and his men aren’t defending democracy; they’re restoring a monarchy. But that’s all right—it’s one of those good monarchies.
Nowhere in Africa is smaller, quieter and more sensitive than Tears, but it still manages to be a film set in Africa where Africans are beside the point. Juliane Kohler plays the heroine, Jettel Redlich, a Jewish woman who moves to Kenya with her young daughter to join her husband, Walter (Merab Ninidze), a settler who fled Germany on the eve of the Holocaust. The Africans around their farm are mostly a kindly, grinning bunch—particularly cook, handyman and surrogate uncle Owuor, whose saintliness makes Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy seem like Amiri Baraka—and they provide mostly sight gags and points of cultural comparison. After her husband is interned by the ruling British military, Jettel goes from being a pampered princess to a somewhat tougher individual. Her morality is tested by a fling with a German-speaking British officer; her family is battered by anti-Semitism and gripped by an irrational nostalgia for the hateful country they left behind. But despite the dramatic twists, Link’s swooping camerawork and a few nice acting moments, the result still feels thin and unconvincing—a kosher Out of Africa.
Tears of the Sun boasts horrible music by Hans Zimmer, who also scored Black Hawk Down and The Lion King. Zimmer specializes in bombast, which is why he’s a favorite of action filmmakers. I’m not sure why he got typecast as the Africa Guy, considering that his scores have about as much authentic African flavor as the Animal Kingdom section of Disney World. One has to assume he keeps getting these assignments because he keeps getting these assignments. If you want proof of commercial filmmakers’ imaginative poverty, don’t look for it. Listen.
Tears of the Sun
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Nowhere in Africa
Directed by Caroline Link