The African Movie We Want to Make

Part Two

Okay, you might ask, it’s easy enough to bash Red Sea Diving Resort for its cultural deafness and white savior tropes, but what do you got instead? Well, any of you who have read my posts before probably know I have worked with others over the past couple of years to try to get Prevail adapted into a documentary and one day, a feature film.

For those of you who don’t know Prevail, you can buy the book here. Very quickly: in 1935, Ethiopia had to defend itself with spears and antique rifles against a modern invasion by Fascist Italy, all while the League of Nations hemmed and hawed, and Britain and France in particular sold out their African ally. The Fascists bombed hospitals, used poison gas, slaughtered thousands and occupied almost half the country for five years. But amazingly, African Americans and white liberals protested, and Ethiopia became a hugely popular liberal cause.

Image for post
Image for post

After the Second World War started, the Ethiopian Patriots teamed up with British and colonial African and Indian troops to take the nation back — the first occupied country to be liberated in WW2. It’s quite literally the greatest true story I’ve ever found.

And here’s the thing. Unlike Hollywood’s routine scrubbing of the facts, you don’t have to make a lot of stuff up. We know A LOT about what the real people did and said. In some cases, it’s so incredible you almost would think it is scripted. The good guys face overwhelming, terrible odds… and lose. But then they come back from behind and win.

So how would a cool film of that story begin? I think it should start like this:

Image for post
Image for post

This is from the very first page of our feature film script. And yes, it’s registered with the Writers Guild of America West.

The scene is the same one that opens the book, Prevail, one that actually happened. Ethiopian warriors racing forward to battle tanks. Amazing… Wouldn’t you like to see that on screen? I sure do!

But who should we follow in this epic? Who will take us on that hero’s journey?

A confession to make here. Feeling the weight of responsibility in getting this story right, trying to be true to the facts, my early drafts concentrated on five essential characters among the many figures that are followed in the narrative of the book: British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, reporter George Steer, Emperor Haile Selassie, his aide Lorenzo Taezaz and representing America, the pilot John Robinson, the “Brown Condor” who flew daring missions for Ethiopia.

My initial idea, thinking I was oh, so very clever, was to tell the story at the beginning mostly from the side of Western characters, making you think you were getting sucked into another white savior tale. But just as in the real history, our white heroes let the Ethiopians down. I wanted the audience to get that same sense of betrayal and then we’d ramp up the participation of our Ethiopian Patriot heroes and the guys we should really root for!

Ahem. Yeah, that was the idea…

Well, my allies in this exercise didn’t think I pulled that one off. They didn’t see it, and they may well be right. They did think it felt like too much emphasis on the white dudes, so back to the drawing board. In the end, you can’t judge the finished product by your intentions, it’s whether the damn thing works or not.

But I was left with the same problem. I had to loosen the grip of facts… not much, but a bit… to tell a bigger truth. I sure as hell didn’t want to go off the deep end and irresponsibly make shit up the way Hollywood does.

So to tell this story properly, I created a composite figure. From Walwal all the way to the Liberation, Lorenzo Taezaz was there. As one of Haile Selassie’s top aides, he was with the Emperor under fire. He went with him into exile. He helped draft the Emperor’s famous speech to the League of Nations. He snuck into Occupied Ethiopia on secret missions to help the Resistance. He was also a great friend to our “Western conscience” figure George Steer, the greatest journalist and chronicler of the war. He’s perfect as a hero.

But hey, I’m greedy. Lorenzo was nowhere near the exciting stuff that was happening with protests in the U.S. over Ethiopia, and that history really needs to be told, too. While MLK and American slavery get multiple movies, when it comes to Africa, we frequently have to settle for one film to represent a major event or figure in history (except for Mandela). Black Americans protesting the war and rallying to Ethiopia is as much a crucial part of Prevail as other bits. And think of the great crowd scenes! (We’ve got ’em.)

Dr. Malaku Bayen, the Emperor’s other great aide, was there for all that. And Bayen knew our other hero, the pilot John Robinson.

So it made perfect sense to combine the two into one protagonist. And to honor my business partner, I named him “Bereket.” He would be our guy. We would follow the war through his eyes.

But what is Bereket’s character arc? What is his story as we tell the story of the war?

To me, personally, it makes no sense to show a guy who enthusiastically joins up and rushes into the fighting. That’s damn predictable, isn’t it? Besides, many ordinary Ethiopians did just that in 1935 — and were horribly cut down by machine guns or bombed or burned by poison gas, and we would be showing that anyway. That tells the story of the war, but it doesn’t make our hero inherently interesting.

Instead, what if our hero doesn’t want to fight? What if he realizes the struggle against the early invasion is hopeless? (And it was.) The Emperor sent many young men to be educated abroad, and our hero is one of them. Like other African expatriates of that era, he develops ambivalent feelings about the technological backwardness of his homeland, what’s good about home and the sophistication of the Western world, which still too often sees Africans as “savages.” Plus he’s got a nice life going in Europe. He’s got a girl. He’s got prospects. He wants to stay.

Ah, but he’s also got responsibilities. Okay, he’ll help the Emperor find allies, he’ll go to the League of Nations for all their sake. In a way, he’s playing for time.

But in watching how the rest of the world cruelly betrays Ethiopia with committee hearings and big talk and delays, he finds his way back to patriotism and to fierce loyalty to his monarch. At one point, he tries to get through to Anthony Eden, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, at the League of Nations —

Image for post
Image for post

Despite using a made-up figure for our hero, I would still say that close to 95 percent of our screenplay shows people doing and saying almost exactly what they said and did in real life.

Anthony Eden left us memoirs that give us a detailed portrait of the diplomatic behind-the-scenes. George Steer told us what he encountered out in the field in two brilliant books. And we have the letters John Robinson wrote home. We have loads of material on our main villain, Mussolini. Take for instance, the dictator’s contempt after he argued with Eden over leaving Ethiopia alone in the months leading up to the war. Eden leaves the meeting and Mussolini says —

Image for post
Image for post

Those are Mussolini’s actual words about Eden. No need to “Hollywood-ize” him. Let’s use what the monster said.

Image for post
Image for post

When it comes to Haile Selassie, there are pivotal moments in the story, just as there were in the actual events of the conflict, where his real words are more effective and moving than anything a scriptwriter could pluck from their imagination.

So if this film ever gets made based on this script, you’ll see Haile Selassie fire an anti-aircraft gun, just as he did during the invasion, and we have his famous speech, warning the world, “It is us today, it will be you tomorrow.” It was an incredible moment you can see for yourself in footage uploaded to YouTube, but what is misrepresented is that the newsreel guys stuck in a sound effect of applause. In reality, when Haile Selassie finished his speech, you could have heard a pin drop. He shamed the delegates into silence.

And you’ll see how the Emperor struggled during his exile, really struggled — and if there are any gods smiling down on us, we’ll film at the very place where he lived, Fairfield House in Bath. (We do have footage of it in the documentary being made).

We have room, too, in our feature version for the Ethiopian women Patriots, whose stories were told in the book. And I really wanted to make sure we gave a cameo in the script to this young man in the centre of this photo:

The charismatic Jagama Kello, the boy general who was leading 3,500 men by the time he was twenty years old. Having met and interviewed him, I have always considered him a “must-have” in the narrative.

To tell anymore is to get into spoilers, which sounds a bit silly as we should know how the story ends. The good guys do win. But it’s so rare to see Africans win on the big screen. The Red Sea Diving Resort, when it has Africans in it at all, portrays most as pitiful figures who need to be rescued by outside Western forces. Spoiler alert here but no real big surprise, there is even a scene in which the refugees are in hiding, sitting down in a shed or some structure, and a bad guy gun man bursts in —

These are Ethiopians. Okay, yes, they’re refugees; tired, scared, blah, blah, blah. But these are still supposed to be Ethiopians. And instead of just one of them bravely taking the guy on, no, we’re supposed to accept that the white female character comes up from behind and gets the guy in a choke hold, killing him while the refugees docilely look on. I don’t know about you, but based on my research, in real life, there would be at least one Ethiopian woman who would get up and kick that guy’s ass. Woe to any man who thinks they are pushovers.

Ugh. Is it any wonder then that audiences went nuts over Black Panther, a film with a predominantly black cast set in Africa, about a black superhero? The trouble is that Black Panther is about a fictional country.

What would be nice — what would be truly refreshing and innovative — is to tell this story. About a real African nation with a rich culture and traditions, a nation that was invaded, fought back and won. Moreover, there were Kenyans, Nigerians, South Africans and Caribbean soldiers who fought for Ethiopia’s Liberation. What could be a more uplifting modern historical epic about Africa than this one? We’d like to see it.

And maybe someday, fingers crossed…

Image for post
Image for post

Written by

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store