Decolonizing Memory in Netflix’s Black Earth Rising

Michaela Cole as Kate Ashby – Copyright BBC and Netflix

The 1994 Rwandan Genocide (and the subsequent Congo Wars) is one of the great shames of the international community of the late 20th century. Over 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority were killed by the Hutu majority within 100 days and the UN failed to intervene. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a paramilitary group of former Tutsi refugees, and today’s ruling party in Rwanda, effectively ended the slaughter in July of 1994.

The genocide has been the subject of various literary and cinematic cultural representation such as Philip Gourevitch’s We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, theatrical plays such as Yolande Mukagasana’s Rwanda 94, Immaculée Ilibagiza’s autobiographies, and the celebrated 2005 film Hotel Rwanda.

Now, twenty five years after the horrific events, the Netflix/BBC series Black Earth Rising presents a fictionalization of the Rwandan Genocide that doesn’t chronicle what happened, but asks how we remember and who gets to remember. The series follows Kate Ashby (Michaela Coel), a Tutsi survivor of the Rwandan Genocide who was raised in Great Britain. She is horrified when her mother, well-known human rights barrister Eve Ashby (Harriett Walter), takes on the prosecution of Simon Nyamoya. A celebrated Rwandan war hero, he now has been charged with war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the DRC, formerly Zaire) by the International Criminal Court (ICC). To Kate, it is incomprehensible why her mother would prosecute a man who put an end to the Rwandan genocide. But before the trial starts, both Eve Ashby and Simon Nyamoya are shot and killed in front of the ICC, leaving Kate with even more questions that she will set out to answer.

Narrating trauma, mediating memory

One of the most poignant aspects of the show is the intersection of race, memory and gender that Kate has to navigate in order to know and claim her personal history. After another war hero and friend of her mother, Alice Munazero (a former general of the RPF) is arrested by the French authorities for war crimes committed during the genocide, Kate (together with her mother’s law firm partner Michael Ennis) decides to continue her mother’s work. In a complicated investigation that leads her not only back in time but also to Rwanda and the DRC (by way of France), she ends up discovering well-hidden secrets of her past.

The series plays with the narrative messiness of memory, depicting competing perspectives and intermingling survivors’ personal memories with historical statistics. It also emphasizes the power dynamics of remembering: personal narratives are shown in animated sequences in tones of grey, producing a screening effect. In doing so, the director avoids an exploitative gaze towards violence being done to black bodies, and the viewer can follow the narrative without being emotionally overwhelmed.

Trauma however, is not just narrated, it also finds physical expression. Underscoring the volatile and yet pervasive aspects of memory and remembrance, it presents a literal disruption: Kate for example, has a large scar on her body, a silent, physical reminder of experiences she barely remembers. Likewise, a  survivor of a massacre has completely lost her voice; the Rwandan president, Bibi Mundanzi (a war orphan who was adopted by Alice Munazero’s family) is suffering from trauma-induced seizures; and at several points Kate begins to vomit when her memories return. Even Eunice’s fibrous cysts and Michael’s cancer is interpreted by them as “a symptom of collective guilt” for being bystanders to the atrocities of the genocide. The physical body remembers, even if the afflicted person won’t.

It is not until the penultimate episode that the viewer obtains a clearer picture of what exactly happened in Kate’s life 25 years ago. As such, the series not only holds our attention, it also shows how non-linear, multi-layered and messy memory—and by extension memorial culture—can be. The tension between personal and cultural memory, between factual truth and dominant narration of events, may never be fully dissolved, the series suggests, but talking about it, establishing public discourse is necessary, or the traumatic memory takes over.

The “Real” Story

[Contains Spoilers] After several plot twists it turns out that Kate is not, as she had been made believe, a Tutsi. Instead, she was a child found in a Hutu refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Upon her investigation Kate discovers that this camp had been brutally “dismantled” by the Rwandan war hero Simon Nyamoya in order to find genocidaires he suspected of hiding there. At the time, NGO aid workers Eve, Eunice Clayton and Michael Ennis, along with Alice Munazero were powerless witnesses, who kept silent as “it was a truth nobody wanted to hear.”

However, they did make a pact to one day come forward and set things right. 25 years later, when the ICC charges Simon Nyamoya with war crimes, their opportunity arrived. Eve and Michael have become influential human rights lawyers. Eunice now serves as the US Assistant Secretary of State of the Bureau for African Affairs, and Alice Munazero is a high-ranking government official. They jump at the chance to bring Nyamoya to justice in an international court, as in Rwanda, no legal prosecution of Simon Nyamoya had been possible—any law criticizing the RPF would be considered “sectarianism.”

When Kate finally learns the truth of her fate, she travels to the DRC, looking for the literal bodies of her past to prove that the massacre and destruction of the refugee camp occurred. The villagers meet her with stony silence at first—too precarious is the peace in which they live now. “The past has to be [dead], so it doesn’t infect the future,” a French UN soldier tells Kate. She defiantly declares: “The only cure is to recognize it.”

The Black Earth Rising of the title becomes literal when, with the help of the villagers, Kate discovers the mass grave of the refugees outside of the village, proving that “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past;” thus, her actions make prosecution possible.

Postmemory and the Politics of Remembering

Scholar Marianne Hirsch, herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, coined the term “postmemory” to describe “the relationship that later generations or distant contemporary witnesses bear to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of others—to experiences they ‘remember’ or know only by means of stories, images, and behaviors.” Focusing especially on the role of daughters as recipient and keepers of memory, she is hoping to open a “space of remembrance beyond the line of family (…).”

The practice of postmemory then is an “act of solidarity, and perhaps agency on behalf of the trauma of the other.” By preserving the memory of the survivor, daughters (and other witnesses), bear witness even if the survivor cannot.

In Kate Ashby’s and her adoptive mother’s case however, the postmemory model gets reversed, as Eve takes on the emotional task of remembering. While not a survivor herself, she was a direct witness to Kate’s story. However, she refuses to tell her daughter directly, instead choosing the path of prosecution of war criminals. Her witness is not only a personal witness to her adopted daughter, but to the world.

Eve’s attempted prosecution of Simon Nyamoya was indeed an act of “agency on behalf of the trauma of the other”: in trying war criminals, she was trying to establish and validate her daughter’s personal history. This act seems especially appropriate for a genocide survivor like Kate, who is unable to fully remember or give voice to her experiences. But at the same time, there is the troublesome reality of the global power dynamic Eve represents.

The show early on questions the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court: To many, the ICC is just another neo-colonial institution: “African Justice for Africans” yells an activist after Eve’s declaration that all war crimes need to be brought to justice. Throughout the series, the racist, colonial attitudes still prevailing in most European countries get exposed, such as when a war criminal is protected to preserve the economic interests of Western shareholders in a mining deal.

But to simply ascribe Eve Ashby’s actions to a white savior complex would fall short of the complexity of both her character and her motivations. While she does seem driven by an unshakeable belief in the rightness of her actions, and dismisses the criticism of neo-colonialism with infuriating ease, she is also directly affected by the events: her fiancé Ed Holt died saving orphaned baby Kate. Moreover, as a witness to the horrors of Simon Nyamoya’s actions, she is seeking justice for her family and hopes for redemption for having kept quiet for so long.

Decolonizing Memory

Overall, the series challenges the connection between memorial culture and legal prosecution. At first the protagonists seem convinced that once there has been a trial, and war criminals have received their sentence, justice has been served, and life can move on—justice is nothing but a legal matter. This idealism however meets its limits, for example when it turns out that one of the greatest warlords is evading prosecution by hiding out in a London mansion filled with racist, colonial artefacts. Likewise, a third generation rubber magnate in France ironically becomes Alice Munazero’s first business partner. The real villains—colonizers, and those who still profit from exploiting African countries, the show suggests, will never be tried.

Importantly, though, they do not get to write history alone anymore. Initially, Kate’s own memory of the events is unreliable. But when her mother dies, she begins to reclaim the process and eventually, becomes a witness to her own past and to the collective trauma. She is able to take back her memory, not only by finding the truth, but by glimpsing at how power complicates narratives and memory. Taking up her late mother’s cause and supporting the prosecution of war crimes in Rwanda, Kate unites her personal history with her mother’s legacy, claiming her past to have a future.

In the series it is women—mothers and daughters—who function as preservers of memory and become actors for the future. Bibi Mundanzi ends up taking a leave of absence from the presidential powers in order to connect with her own estranged daughter. Alice Munazero, as advisor to the president with de facto presidential powers, is working on finding a balance between relations with the West, economic prosperity and remembering the past.  

In its last consequence then, Black Earth Rising is an urgent call to Western, especially European countries to finally acknowledge their colonial history and integrate it into their collective memories. But it is also a call to women to reclaim and tell their own stories as a decolonizing act.

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Verena is a writer, educator, editor and lover of cats and dogs. She hails from Germany, and came to Portland, OR by way of Aotearoa/New Zealand, Minnesota, California (where she received a Phd) and Indiana. She is interested in tattoos, body culture in general, and pop culture.