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'Black Earth Rising' Is A Fascinating, If Clunky, Take On The Rwandan Genocide

Michaela Coel plays a survivor of the Rwandan geonocide in the BBC/Netflix miniseries, <em>Black Earth Rising.</em>
Sophie Mutevelian
Michaela Coel plays a survivor of the Rwandan geonocide in the BBC/Netflix miniseries, Black Earth Rising.

April will mark the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a 100-day period in which world leaders stood idly by as more than 800,000 people — Tutsi minorities and moderate Hutus — were murdered by the majority Hutus, who had 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.

Blick's up to the same tricks in this new eight-part series, which offers us the gaudy goodies of a thriller — murders, chases and shocking revelations — in order to interest us in a tragedy whose aftershocks are still rocking Africa today.

Rising British star Michaela Coel plays the role of Kate Ashby, a 30-ish 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.

Eve and her American boss Michael Ennis (played by John Goodman) are dedicated to prosecuting those who turned Central Africa into a killing field. All of which is fine until Eve goes after a Tutsi general who, after helping end the genocide, went on to commit war crimes in neighboring Democratic Republic of 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 government minister from a war crimes charge brought by the French. As the two cases cross-pollinate, Black Earth Rising 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.

Now, Black Earth Rising is decidedly not one of those current-events potboilers like Bodyguardor 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 Rwanda 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 onetime 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 confidant 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.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.