Series Review

'Black Earth Rising' is everything an intriguing political drama should be

Set against the backdrop of the Rwandan genocide, this Netflix series raises relevant questions about the relationship between Africa and the West with regards to an embarrassing chapter in the history of both

17 February 2019 - 00:07
Michael Ennis (John Goodman) and Kate Ashby (Michaela Coel).
Michael Ennis (John Goodman) and Kate Ashby (Michaela Coel).
Image: Supplied

If you've never heard of British writer Hugo Blick, it's time that you did. Over the past eight years Blick has demonstrated a singular talent for creating dark conspiracy thrillers that twist and turn and demand much patience on the part of viewers. It's always intellectually intriguing and worth the effort.

From his 2011 police procedural The Shadow Line to 2014's Middle East-conflict political thriller The Honourable Woman and now with the eight-part Rwanda genocide-inspired Netflix miniseries Black Earth Rising, Blick has continuously demonstrated a unique skill at mixing personal stories with bigger-picture machinations.

For South Africans, and African viewers at large, the issues Blick tackles in Black Earth Rising are urgent and pertinent. The contentious relationship between African countries and the International Criminal Court in The Hague were brought to the fore in the furore about SA's decision to allow Sudanese leader and alleged war criminal Omar al-Bashir to leave the country in 2015.

The relationship between the current SA government and Rwanda's president Paul Kagame has also raised its head in the investigation into the alleged assassination of former Rwandan spy-chief Patrick Karegeya in a Sandton hotel room in 2013.

Both of these questions are at the forefront of Blick's show which deals with an investigation by the ICC into the actions of a fictional Tutsi leader during the Rwanda genocide, during which between 500,000 and one million Rwandans (mostly Tutsis) were killed in a 100-day period between April and July 1994.

Kate Ashby (Michaela Coel) is a genocide survivor, living in London and working as a lawyer. She was saved from a massacre by her adopted mother - human-rights lawyer and ICC prosecutor Eve (Harriet Walter). When a former Tutsi commander Alice Munezero (Noma Dumezweni) is arrested for human-rights violations, the case throws the lives of Kate, her mother, her mother's law partner Michael Ennis (John Goodman) and Rwandan president Bibi Mundanzani (Abena Ayivor) and her adviser David Runihara (Lucian Msamati) into a maelstrom of chaos that threatens to expose a long-held secret.

It's all the perfect recipe of the personal and broader geopolitical consequence that is Blick's favourite area of exploration.

WATCH | The trailer for Black Earth Rising 

Thanks to sterling performances from Coel (deftly swapping the comedy chops for which she's known from her irreverently funny Chewing Gum show) and Goodman - this complicated and far-reaching story manages to keep up its high levels of personal involvement and political intrigue. It also raises relevant questions about the relationship between Africa and the West with regards to an embarrassing chapter in the history of both.

It may demand much on the part of its audience and keep many of its secrets tantalisingly out of reach, but it's a welcome reminder of how to make good, gripping, intellectually stimulating and moody political drama.

That's a relief in an age in which there's a tendency to stretch things beyond the boundaries of believability in an effort to provide the cliffhanger episode endings so necessary to ensuring continued interest in the era of peak TV. It's also a reminder that Blick, along with Abi Morgan, Peter Morgan and David Simon, is one of the foremost creators of political drama in the modern era.

• Black Earth Rising is on Netflix.