“White Roles” in African Film

On the intercultural negotiation of identities

The project proposes a new perspective on the history of African cinema against the backdrop of processes of intercultural negotiation. For various reasons roles that derive from white role models are taken up in African films. Upon adopting ‘white roles’ black actors are confronted with notions of a ‘racially’ determined identity that, although scientifically obsolete, are still quite commonplace in the western media. The concept of the ‘white role’ is to serve to analyse the construction of a category and its dismantling. In African film black actors take on both social roles which refer back to white role models as well as roles which have been transmitted by western media. The heuristic concept of the ‘white role’ is to be examined not ontologically but through its operational logic: When is a movie role a ‘white role’? Has the actor playing an African businessman already taken on a ‘white role’ as soon as he puts on a tie? Does a film dating from 1956 answer this question differently than one produced in 2005? When members of the African elite are represented as paragons of colonial rule, what characteristics are associated with ‘white roles’? For example, what relationship to colonialism does the role of the cowboy have when it is played by African youths? Is Carmen still to be considered a ‘white role’ if the arias have been translated from French into Xhosa and the plot transposed onto the South African context? As a black character, Carmen represents the culmination of a logic that Ludwig Jäger (2004) referred to as “transcription”, a logic which originated with the ‘white role’. This logic constitutes a process of dispossession and appropriation, which all those who participated in the film have experienced.

If the staging of ‘white roles’ is considered to be an indicator of developments in African film, one quickly begins to suspect that African cultural history is once again being measured against white standards. Although it might at first seem paradoxical, this phenomenon can in fact be regarded as film-makers self-confidently confronting the realities of society and the media in Africa. From the very beginning African film has sought to overcome the limits of existing role repertoires that restrict the casting of black actors in European and US-American film productions. The constructed nature of the categories white and black is laid bare. The taking on of roles makes the same roles negotiable. Against the backdrop of colonialism, post-colonialism and globalisation the manifold stagings of ‘white roles’ are evidence of the dynamics of processes of intercultural exchange. It is precisely here that we can observe critical and creative engagement with western culture and its values. Through diachronic comparison, the taking on of particular roles in the context of massive political and cultural shifts can be theorised with respect to their performativity. Because film localises globally circulating norms and role expectations and therefore questions the degree to which they are appropriate to a given society, the adoption of ‘white roles’ by African actors marks a watershed in intercultural discourse.


Cassis Kilian

2012: Schwarz besetzt. Postkoloniale Planspiele im afrikanischen Film. Bielefeld: Transcript

2012: Flimmernde Utopien – 50 Jahre afrikanischer Film. In: Thomas Bierschenk und Eva Spies (Hrsg.): 50 Jahre Unabhängigkeit in Afrika. Kontinuitäten, Brüche, Perspektiven. Köln: Köppe.

2012: Une nouvelle vague. African Western Transformations. In: Thomas Klein, Ivo Ritzer und Peter W. Schulze (Hrsg.): Crossing Frontiers. Intercultural Perspectives on the Western. Marburg: Schüren, 149-162.

2010: Glimmering Utopias. 50 Years of African Film. In: Africa Spectrum, Vol. 45, No. 3 (2010): 147-159.

Photo: Djibril Diop Mambéty: Hyènes ©trigon-fil.