TV Review: Black Earth Rising

A cast led by Michaela Coel, Noma Dumezweni, John Goodman and Lucian Msamati make Hugo Blick’s complex Black Earth Rising watchable if not quite essential

“That is why I made a deal like that”

A tricky one this. At this point, you know what you’re getting with a Hugo Blick drama (qv The Shadow Line, The Honorable Woman), weighty complex dramas with amazing casts tackling inscrutable global conspiracies. And Black Earth Rising is no different, as it puts the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath under the microscope, examining Western colonial and capitalist attitudes towards Africa along with the role of the Iinternational Criminal Court.

And with a cast led by Michaela Coel, Noma Dumezweni, Harriet Walter, John Goodman and Lucian Msamati to name just a few, it is naturally eminently watchable. Coel plays Kate Ashby, a young woman with a complicated relationship with her barrister mother Eve (Walter). Eve adopted Kate from Rwanda years back but her decision to take on a case prosecuting a Tutsi general who, after helping end the genocide, went on to commit war crimes in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, outrages Kate who is also Tutsi.

But even that is only part of the picture as Blick shows totally unafraid of teasing out huge moral questions and avoiding the route of providing easy answers. Consequently, the eight episodes of Black Earth Rising are densely packed with thought-provoking material. The role of the international community as peacekeepers in Africa and arbiters of justice of what has historically happened there is powerfully explored. And acting as director too, Blick throws in some typically stylistic choices that keep us on our toes.

For all that is admirable though, there’s something not quite as engaging as it should be and the main problem lies in the smaller picture. Whilst he’s on top of his geopolitics, the basic writing of Kate as a character leaves a lot to be desired. Too often she’s used as a symbolic device to deliver arch pronouncements rather than developing as this unimaginably conflicted soul, and the opportunity to use the mother/daughter relationship feels wasted. Coel does well in the part though, and Abena Ayivor and Dumezweni are both excellent as the Rwandan president and her sister, their personal dynamic reminding us of the humanity of the story.

Photos: BBC/Forgiving Earth Ltd/Sophie Mutevelian

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