Tuesday, 5 October 2010
Supporting black talent or lack thereof
Recently I picked up a book called Bitter Leaf as it was being discussed at a book club that covers work from African writers, of which I hasten to add there are many exceptional ones; it has taken me four painful weeks to force myself to finish 400 pages of what I consider badly written, badly researched and extremely pretentious crap.
At the book club we discussed the book and it seemed as though most people in the room who like me were supporters of African writing and anxious no doubt to attest to an African Renaissance, were making excuses for the writer. Rather than say they didn't like her writing or found it mediocre at best, some struggled to find positive things to say and suggested that perhaps it was because we simply didn't get it. Could this be an example of Amos Tutola's Palm Wine Drinkard of the 21st century - a work that was misunderstood and ahead of its time? Could her blatant lack of regard of the cardinal rule of writing to show rather than tell be a sign that she is fully aware of the norm and chooses like Jazz music to flout it? Being a child of plain speaking, I felt then and still feel now, that it is simply a badly written book. The writer creates a so-called African setting without wanting to call it that, and jam packs each page with one cliché after the other; her characters like her setting are neither believable nor interesting. There is no depth, in fact I would go as far as to say it is the literary equivalent of 80% of Nollywood films or if I want to be generous a modern day Disney Fairytale. Yet you sense that as she writes, she is trying to impress the reader with references to languages and cultures that she has no doubt come across but which have no place in the story and render it even less authentic than it would have otherwise been had we dealt with one language, one culture and one clearly identifiable and credible story.
When I finally got to put the book down, at the back of my shelf, I decided that a break from bad black talent was in order and went to a screening of Up From the Bottoms, African American Migration to Muskegon , a documentary narrated by Cicely Tyson which was fantastic, and went some way to make up the 400 page fairytale torture. For some strange reason, however the organisers decided to show a short British film about the 'politics' of oral sex in the Black British community called Morally Speaking (get it?) on the same night. Once again I was reminded of the importance of being selective when supporting black talent. The film, albeit a short and clearly a low budget production was so badly done, I could hardly face the director who obviously felt proud enough of his work to pop in for a question and answer session afterwards. It got me wondering - who on earth are these people who call themselves artists catering for? Do they presume that other Black people are so simple-minded as to be impressed by talentless nonsense? Are we as Black people so starved that we will accept any one-dimensional work that is fed to us?
This takes me to the Tyler Perry phenomenon. Like the majority of what comes out of the Nigerian film industry, I can’t help but marvel at the number of seemingly intelligent people who support his work time and again. I've seen three Tyler Perry films and feel as though that is enough to last me a lifetime. I recognise of course that Hollywood is not known for churning out quality; and can see that for black film makers it’s a numbers game too. Get them out fast and get the money. The difference however is that a lot of smart people I know shun crap that comes out of Hollywood, in fact the intelligent world prides itself on shaming insultingly rubbish productions. We even have 'The Golden Raspberries' in case the box office figures weren't enough to tell the film makers and stars of films like Gigli and Swept Away what a terrible job they did.
Admittedly in the 80s the argument was that our films were so few and far between, our books just not getting published so when one got through, we had to show our support so more could come. But that was then, today we have countless incredible African and Diasporan writers like Helon Habila, Aminatta Forna, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Petina Gappah, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Edwidge Danticat, Andrea Levy to name but a few. As far as films go if we look beyond the obvious glossies from LA, we'll find some phenomenal works from the likes of Raoul Peck, Eric Kabera, Abderrahmane Sissako, Mama Keita, Sanaa Hamri and many many more.
Personally I think it’s high time we call out the poor excuses for artists in our community, tell them to go back and polish their talents and above all to stop taking for granted that the colour of their skin and apparent lack of competition will be enough for us to support them. I for one will continue to separate the wheat from the chaff and call out anyone who puts themselves forward as an artist, be it literary or visual because if I were in their shoes, I would expect no less from a discerning audience.