'Black Earth Rising' Is A Fascinating, If Clunky, Take On The Rwandan Genocide
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new Netflix series "Black Earth Rising" Stars Michaela Coel as a Rwandan exile and John Goodman as an American human rights lawyer who investigate war crimes committed during and after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Our critic at large John Powers says that it's a superbly acted show about the search for justice.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: There are events so horrific we'd rather not think about them. One that much of the world has largely forgotten is the Rwandan genocide, whose 25th anniversary is this April. As Western leaders stood idly by, 800,000 members of the minority Tutsi tribe were murdered by the majority Hutus who'd been whipped into a homicidal frenzy by their leaders.
The fallout from this killing spree is the subject of a clunky but fascinating BBC drama, "Black Earth Rising," just out on Netflix. It was made by Hugo Blick, whose award-winning 2014 series "The Honourable Woman," used a deliriously serpentine plot to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. He's up to the same tricks in this new eight-part series which offers us the gaudy goodies of a thriller - you know, murders and chases and shocking revelations - in order to interest us in a tragedy whose aftershocks are still rocking Africa today.
Rising British star Michaela Coel stars as Kate Ashby, a 30ish Rwandan who as a little girl was rescued from the 1994 genocide by human rights lawyer Eve Ashby - that's Harriet Walter - who adopted her and raised her in London. Even her American boss, Michael Ennis - that's John Goodman - are dedicated to prosecuting those who turned Central Africa into a killing field, all of which is fine until Eve goes after goes after a Tutsi general who, after helping end the genocide, went on to commit war crimes in neighboring Congo.
Kate is outraged. How can her own mom go after a man who saved Tutsis like herself from slaughter? This tricky question gets even trickier once Kate finds herself working with Michael on a second case, this time defending a Rwandan minister from a war crimes charge brought by the French.
As the two cases cross-pollinate, "Black Earth Raising" races from London mansions to Congolese mining camps, from Parisian police stations to the presidential offices in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Meanwhile, Kate, whose childhood trauma keeps her inner life churning, burns with a righteous anger that blinds her to the past's full complexity. Here, she challenges Michael for letting her mother prosecute that Tutsi general named Simon Niyamoya.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK EARTH RISING")
MICHAELA COEL: (As Kate) It isn't your world.
JOHN GOODMAN: (As Michael) The Congo?
COEL: (As Kate) The genocide.
GOODMAN: (As Michael) I prosecuted one of the first cases for the ICTR in '98. Your mother was my junior. It's where we met. I'd go so far as to say it's why you're here.
COEL: (As Kate) And I don't want to go back to any of it ever.
GOODMAN: (As Michael) Do you think your mother loves you, Kate? You think she'd ever do anything to harm you?
COEL: (As Kate) It's a silly question.
GOODMAN: (As Michael) It is, so why do you keep asking it? Your mother is one of the most steadfast and loyal people I have ever met. And most of that has been directed at you. She's also one of the smartest. So if she's chosen to prosecute Simon Niyamoya, I trust her to do it. Let her do her job, Kate.
POWERS: Now, "Black Earth Rising" is decidedly not one of those current events pot boilers like "Bodyguard" or "Homeland." It cares less about ratcheting things up than reminding us that history is vast, messy and ever-changing. Kate's exploration of her past helps us understand the Rwandan genocide and its violent aftermath. We get details of how Belgian and French policies helped fuel the killing and how colonialism still works today. We see how the Tutsi leaders who currently run Rwanda have created an orderly but dictatorial state. And more abstractly, we see how hard it is to define justice in a world where one-time heroes start doing bad things and fate transforms villains into victims. Of course, it would take a lifetime to capture the complexity of all these things. And "Black Earth Rising" is only an eight-hour TV series.
Although Blick tries hard to do justice to his subject, his ambition has a cost. The dramatic side of the series can be wobbly. Some of the dialogue is thuddingly expository. Some of the plot twists feel mechanical. Some of the symbolism is overbearing. And our heroine Kate is less a three-dimensional character than a walking emblem of Central African trauma. Yet Coel plays Kate with such incandescent intensity that she keeps us riveted anyway. In fact, the whole series is superbly acted. There's a winningly ambiguous turn by Lucian Msamati as the confidante of Rwanda's president and a brilliant one by Goodman, who, in Michael, aces a dream role. He gets to play smart, witty, soulful and, heck, even sexy.
In the show's opening credits, we hear Leonard Cohen performing his song "You Want It Darker" in his incomparable hound-of-hell growl. Yet "Black Earth Rising" is actually about seeking the light. As Kate learns the buried truth about the past - her own and her home country's - she begins to escape its clutches, transforming herself from an innocent victimized by history into a wised-up woman who's trying to make it.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new Netflix series "Black Earth Rising." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the new 5G network that is being constructed and will be the new central nervous system of the Internet. But China's telecom giant Huawei is dominating the creation of 5G networks around the world, which could give China more access for cyber-espionage and hacking. My guest will be David Sanger, a national security correspondent for The New York Times and the author of a book about cyberwar. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANKE HELFRICH'S "THINK OF ONE")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANKE HELFRICH'S "THINK OF ONE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.