Michaela Coel says she was “shocked” by her ignorance of the issues at the heart of new BBC2 drama Black Earth Rising – but she is unlikely to be the only person surprised by their naivety as the series begins.
The Rwandan genocide and its ongoing ramifications is an international atrocity, but one that is now rarely discussed in western media.
That is why, for Coel, the script for Black Earth Rising was such an eye opener.
“I felt outraged, shocked at my own ignorance,” she says. “‘When did this happen?’ I was asking my mum, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’“
It made her even more determined to secure the role, in an attempt to educate herself: “I wanted to somehow feel a sense of redemption for my lack of awareness.”
Writer/director Hugo Blick says that the challenges of creating this series were very different to those of his previous drama, 2014’s The Honourable Woman, which focussed on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“The unfamiliarity of the story is both the strength of the show and the hill it has to climb,” he says. “With The Honourable Woman, the Israel-Palestine question is in the news every day, so we’re engaged with that discussion.”
The same cannot be said of Black Earth Rising.
While the story created is fictional, it is inspired by – and touches upon – real events of the Rwandan genocide, when members of the Hutu ethnic majority attempted to wipe out the minority Tutsi group in 1994, killing an estimated 800,000 people.
“During the genocide, it was the period when OJ Simpson was arrested [summer 1994], which we remember. We remember the tragic death of two people, but at the same time, up to a million people were killed in Rwanda,” Blick says.
Black Earth Rising explores the West’s intervention in Africa through the lens of a woman caught between both worlds – Coel’s Kate Ashby, the Rwandan-born, adopted daughter of a British international human rights lawyer (played by Harriet Walter).
As the drama begins, her mother is preparing to help prosecute a Rwandan militia leader, who had fought against the genocide, at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
John Goodman in Black Earth Rising
“Doing research on The Honourable Woman, the background on that was the Nuremberg trials. I was thinking, international crime: where has it gone?” Blick says.
“I thought, ‘how does the reconciliation of trauma work institutionally, when you’re looking at war crimes?”
His research brought him to the Democratic Republic of Congo – which shares a border with Rwanda – where he learned that the ICC was pursuing perpetrators of the genocide for war crimes committed after the fact (the court does not prosecute crimes committed before 2001) and individuals who had played a hand in bringing the atrocities to a close.
“Both villains and heroes were being pursued by the same institution, and I couldn’t understand why that was,” he says. “So I was really interested to work that out, and to draw that back down the line to what I do, which is to try and find geopolitical issues like that and to personify them in our lead character.”
Following in Blick’s footsteps, Coel undertook thorough research in order to inform her performance. She read all about Paul Kagame, the current Rwandan president, who served as the leader of the rebel army who brought the genocide to an end.
“I read various accounts of genocide survivors, but then I found that the more I read, the more tangled everything became,” she said. “It was almost like a rabbit hole that I felt I didn’t have the IQ to master.
“What saved me was Kate, the character I play,” she adds. “I guess I could identify with the concepts of wanting resolution for pain or for confusion or for forgetting things, and accidental repression.”
Harriet Walter in Black Earth Rising
Across eight episodes, the drama explores the ICC’s efforts to prosecute African war criminals. In the opening moments of the pilot, a crowd member at an event chastises Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter) for her apparent desire to become the “white saviour” to African problems.
But as the story unfolds, Blick and his actors explore the issue from multiple perspectives, as Kate and Eve’s old friend and colleague Michael Ennis (John Goodman) find themselves on a cross-continental journey to uncover a hidden truth related to the war criminal her mother is set to prosecute.
“The destination that I arrived at was not where I began at all,” Blick says. “Sometimes when you write a project of this size, you absolutely know your destination, you know what you’re going to hit. But on this occasion, I found that the destination changed due to both the experience of research, writing and filming.”
He continued: “It takes away this idea that we’re there to instruct, which is A: incredibly contentious, on a massive geopolitical scale, but B: just not very true, because so many societies now in Africa don’t need to be instructed in the way that we think they do.”
Ultimately, he hopes that his drama will open people’s eyes, both to the past and to the current situation, which, as the show demonstrates, is not black and white.
Black Earth Rising airs on BBC2 on Mondays at 9pm
This article was originally published in September 2018