Contrary to popular belief, Africa is not a country. It is a continent. It should be known that “African” can be such an umbrella term. A very wide, very obscure umbrella. Not only are there differences between countries (of course), but there are also vast differences between the cities of those countries and the tribes within those cities. Using the term “African” describes a whole continent in a way you would describe its geography or climate. While politically and technically correct, the term “African” sometimes just does not cut it, especially when the user or audience of the word does not particularly understand what it encompasses. It is like describing something as culturally “North American”. It it technically right, but it does not really tell the whole story.
There are 54 recognized countries in Africa. In those countries over 1500 different languages are spoken with millions upon millions of different people, totaling to 1.2 billion (as of 2016), speaking those languages and no, none of them speak “African”.
So why is it that movies only seem to portray the same African accent over and over again? Usually they all follow the same algorithm: hard consonants plus a deep voice multiplied by unnecessarily added syllables minus speaking speed equals an authentic “Are we in Africa?” accent. It is a very hard accent to force and even with months of practice some actors and actresses still have trouble nailing it.
Some people cannot tell the difference and remain unbothered by the sometimes butchered accents. However, some can and the constant grating of an off accent takes away from the whole movie experience, no matter how wonderful the actual movie may be.
For example: Although it is much loved and very good movie that broke boundaries for black actors and actresses and set records, Black Panther can be caught slipping up a time or two even with the credentialed Beth McGuire as its dialect coach. It can be argued that since Black Panther is, after all, a fictitious country set it a fantastical universe it can be given a pass. However, the accents portrayed in the movie were based off of real language called Xhosa, which is spoken mostly in South Africa.
Thanks to our trusty dusty algorithm, the Black Panther line “Just don’t freeze when you see her” became (sound it out) “Jha-st Ddon’t fdr-eese when you ssee heh”. It just sounds… off and a strange accent can be distracting and take away from a movie.
Take Black Panther versus Beasts of No Nation.
Beasts of No Nation, starring the incredible Idris Elba and phenomenal Abraham Attah, is a Netflix film depicting the horrors of war and the use of child soldiers in West Africa. While Idris Elba’s accent was sometimes questionable, the fact that Attah’s Ghanaian accent was authentic only added to the intensity and dramatics of the movie.
Although based on two different dialects, it can be clearly heard that a natural or well practiced versus forced or generic one sounds better and means for a more genuine movie experience for those of us that poses a trained ear.
It’s called, as the late great Aretha Franklin would have said, respect. If the proper research is not going to be done into a piece of art, be it a movie, dance, or even a song, then do not do it. It is not just entertainment, but people’s cultures that are being portrayed. Someone will notice and will either take offence or be sourly disappointed.
As many of us know, people tend to take what they see in a popular culture and run with it as what the truth actually is. Not all African people have the same accent and not all African people sound the same. An accent cannot come from a formula but from experience and patience.
It may not be easy but sometimes a little education and a little bit of understanding can go a long ways into truly comprehending the background and significance of the different “African” cultures, languages, and accents. Hopefully, blurred lines can be focused and crooked accents can be tweaked to allow for more accurate representations to take over the big screens.
Photo via Facebook.com @BlackPantherMovie