Films Out of Africa

February 25, 2000

Robyn L. Loda

N. Frank Ukadike knew there was a lot at stake when he began putting together the series of 15 African films presented last semester on campus. Thanks to Hollywood fabrications of African life, "jungle" movies such as the "Tarzan" series or ethnographic films gawking at African cultures, he was tentative about how the series would be received.

But to Ukadike's surprise, attendance was overwhelming. People even called him to learn where they could purchase private copies of the films. It was this interest in cultural perceptions that landed Ukadike, an assistant professor in the communication department and the African and African diaspora studies program, recent recognition from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The organization awarded him a fellowship of $30,000 to work on a book, The New African Cinema: The History, Narratology and Aesthetics of African Films of the 1990s. The new book will be Ukadike's third, all of which focus on African cinema. His first, Black African Cinema, reveals the struggle of pioneer filmmakers in Africa to disentangle the world's perception of their continent and its people. It is considered the authoritative guide to African film studies.

"The book traces the evolution of African cinema from its inception in the 1960s through 1989, when the African film pioneers were first doing this," Ukadike says.

These films were extremely didactic because they wanted to present African life in a positive manner, unlike what Ukadike calls the generally condescending "imaginary Africa" constructed by Hollywood.

"Early African cinema was therefore deeply linked to the politics of liberation from ideas heaped on these people who had been living under colonialism for centuries," he says.

Around 1980, however, a new generation of filmmakers emerged alongside these pioneers, and it is this generation that will be the focus of the new book. Though they have the benefit of the pioneers paving the way, the new filmmakers' plights are more difficult, says Ukadike, because they want to raise African cinema "to the level of industry, to be commercially viable."

Another characteristic of this period is expanded subject matter, which included formerly taboo topics like homosexuality, nudity and sex. The 1990s also gave way to many more women filmmakers in Africa. Ukadike also is interested in recent cinema in South Africa, especially since it is the seat of M-Net, the powerful satellite company that broadcasts films to all parts of Africa and a portion of Asia.

"It will be interesting to examine the activities of M-Net and what they're trying to do by promoting or not promoting African films." He recently finished his second book, The Questioning Cinema: Conversations with African Filmmakers, which includes interviews with 20 filmmakers.

Ukadike says it will serve as a primary source for the new book for which he received the NEH award. He also intends to travel to Africa next year to do research for the new project. Ukadike arrived at Tulane in 1998. He received his BFA in film and television production at Croyden College in England, a master's in film and telecommunication from the University of Oregon, and a master's and doctorate in cinema studies from New York University.

Ukadike taught in the communications and African studies departments at the University of Michigan/Ann Arbor for eight years prior to coming to Tulane.

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