Adanggaman (2000) is a difficult film to watch. Despite its narrative complexity and provocative visual and audio composition, one cannot ignore that at its core it is about the complicity of black Africans in slavery in Africa, as well as in the trans-Atlantic slave trade specifically. Within African cinema the subject of slavery in Africa and collaboration with foreign slave traders is taboo evidenced by the paucity of African films that take up these subjects. In short, the film tells the story of a man named Ossei who rejects the marriage his family has arranged for him because he is in love with an enslaved woman. In a fit of rage and after being beaten by men sent from his family, he leaves the village one night only to return later to find his lover and his father dead, while his mother has been enslaved by a king named Adanggaman. After being injured by an Amazon warrior when attempting to rescue his mother, Ossei seeks help from an old man named Sory who heals him and facilitates him coming before Adanggaman to offer his freedom for that of his mother’s. The king, who captures slaves for his own kingdom and to trade with European slave traders, scoffs at him and enslaves him. Meanwhile, Sory notices that one of the Amazon warriors is his long-lost daughter, Naka. Sory dies in captivity and Naka frees Ossei. They live a peaceful rural existence until Adanggaman’s Amazonians find them, killing Naka and enslaving Ossei—who we are told in the film’s postscript dies in America having never regained his freedom.
The hesitation of African cinema to engage with African involvement in slavery is understandable. While art should account for any historical inhumanity and collaboration in the name of truth, it would be unethical and dangerous to lose sight of European and American insatiable desire for slave labor as the root cause of the genocide of Africans, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of people and the enslavement of tens of millions more. However, as the director Roger Gnoan M’Bala has expressed “Collaborators have existed in all conflicts, all over the world,” and Adanggaman represents an “endogenous gaze” in which African cinema takes an unflinching look at both the history of African involvement with slavery and the history of representing it on screen (Barlet).
Unsurprisingly then perhaps, when the film was released, it “provoked intense controversy” according to prominent Africanist Christopher Miller in The French Atlantic Triangle, particularly when screened at festivals, and was only shown in the director’s home nation of Ivory Coast in 2002 (Miller 376). Despite the dangers of playing into racist apologist discourses interested in erroneously blaming Africans for the transatlantic slave trade, for M’Bala the greater concern given that so few films address slavery in Africa is the inability of Africa to face this part of its past. He says, “This remains a great shame for Africans” because those responsible for narrativizing this history such as “griots [a West African storyteller and oral historian] and great stories systematically hide it” (Barlet). To put it bluntly, Adanggaman is not an apologist film for the European slave trade, nor an attempt to lessen the blame to be heaped on Europe for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Instead, it is an African self-examination, a coming to terms with a subject that has largely been deemed unspeakable. It is meant to make us uncomfortable, not for mere sensation or provocation for its own sake, but to fill in popular discourses with an unrepresented history.
That said, we don’t have to accept the worthiness of the endeavor, but we cannot, I think, question the sincerity with which it is made. With the controversial nature of the film and an acceptance of its sincerity in mind, I would like to consider some of the film’s formal and thematic elements as it relates to the question of history raised by M’Bala above as well as its nature as a work of cinematic fiction.
One of the noteworthy choices made by the director was to not base the film on a particular history or location, but rather to make it “pure fiction” as he terms it (Bartlet). The only location and time given in the film are “Africa, late 17th Century,” however it clearly references the female Amazon warriors of Dahomey via its own female warriors and the cruel slave trading king Adanggaman is certainly cut from the same cloth as slave trading rulers such as Samori and King Behanzin, among many other slave-trading West African monarchs. Given the availability of historical referents, we have to wonder what making the film fictional achieves. For one, it acknowledges that histories themselves are constructed narratives rather than direct access to the truth. When indigenous records are scarce, colonial archives utterly unreliable and racist, and oral traditions manipulated to elide uncomfortable truths (at least according to M’Bala), fidelity to any historical record is at least fraught if not pointless or misrepresentative. By fictionalizing his account, M’Bala argues that “fiction opens up freedom,” allowing him to amalgamate multiple histories into a single narrative (Bartlet). Single narratives, beyond being hard to confirm in this context, are as confining as they are singular. In other words, they do not necessarily represent more than their specific circumstances when what M’Bala wants is to represent a phenomenon at large. By taking representative pieces of various histories and creating something new, M’Bala is attempting to get a large-scale truth beyond simple (and problematic) factual retelling.
Beyond its status as a fictional film, Adanggaman also operates on an allegorical level for the postcolonial African milieu in which masculinity and despots at times collide with disastrous results. Just as Adanggaman sells his subjects for personal gain, several notable African post-independence despots have been similarly willing to sell the interests of their own people for personal gain, often in collaboration with western government or corporations. While the continent can boast inspiring leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, and Thomas Sankara, one can point to any number of referents for modern day Adanggamans. Personally, what comes to mind are disastrous dictators of Nigeria who enriched themselves by colluding with foreign oil companies and governments for personal financial gain while murdering those who resisted environmental destruction and financial corruption such as Ken Saro-Wiwa. This is to say that the uncomfortable legacy of collusion by African slave trading kings from pervious centuries connects rather seamlessly with the also uncomfortable reality of several generations of African heads of state trading the labor and resources of their people for their own enrichment in the post-independence era in Africa. Beyond scenes of slavery, we see this injustice when Naka and Ossei reject living under Adanggaman and attempt to live out a humble but peaceful existence, standing in for modern common citizens simply going about their lives, but are overrun by a profit driven ruler desperate not only for revenge but also to cash in on Ossei’s body that he can sell for profit to foreign slave traders.
The film also critically connects masculinity to the failure of governing systems by making resistance to fathers and patriarchy akin to resisting the state. Ossei resists the demands of his male family members (who are slave owners themselves) when he is told to marry a woman he does not want to (the woman’s views are immaterial) and is met with threats and then actual violence by the men sent by his family. In the same way, when he pushes back against the authority of Adanggaman he is threated and then violently repressed. In a differently gendered encounter, his mother, Mo Akassi, advocates for Ossei’s agency in the marriage debate and stands up to Adanggaman only to be ignored by the men in the former case and tortured until death in the latter. Power and masculinity are thus inseparable in the film and it is in the figure of Mo Akassi who explicitly rejects oppressive male authority and later in Naka when she renounces her warrior status under Adanggaman that we can begin to imagine different, more egalitarian, ways of being in the story.
Ultimately, although Adanggaman is steeped in history, it does not claim to be historically precise or give an overview of the genocide of African people in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Rather, it uses the power and flexibility of filmic fiction to drive an informed but not historically delimited conversation on a taboo subject that the director believes has been suppressed for far too long.
Barlet, Olivier. “A Reflection on Power: Interview of Olivier Barlet with Roger Gnoan M’Bala.” Africiné, 1 Sept. 1999, http://www.africine.org/entretien/une-reflexion-sur-le-pouvoir/957.
Miller, Christopher L. The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade. Duke University Press, 2008.
Article by James Hodapp, Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern University in Qatar