How Not to Make a Movie about Ethiopia… and How to Make a Good One

Just to be clear, there are two parts to this column, and hopefully you’ll want to jump to the next section after reading this one.

Part One

With all the recurring talk of “Oscars So White” and the racist lunacy over a black Little Mermaid, many folks have missed Hollywood’s newest trick: Make a movie about Africa… with virtually no Africans in it.

It’s The Red Sea Diving Resort. I just wasted two hours of my life watching it, so you wouldn’t have to. The hook of the movie is that it’s “inspired” by the true story of how Mossad agents operated a phony hotel on the coast of Sudan as a cover for rescuing scores of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s, resettling them in Israel. Israel made headlines around the world decades ago when it airlifted many Ethiopian Jews to safety. Sounds like a great action movie, right?

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But Red Sea is getting universally panned — and rightly so. The film stars Chris Evans, so charismatic as Captain America and so likable in real-life for his progressive politics (he just slapped down Klan Barbie Tomi Lahren over her anti-asylum seeker bile). But even he can’t save this abysmally mediocre production.

I don’t want to replicate the mainstream reviews. But we know we’re in trouble early on when our hero Evans is called “crazy and out of control.” Aren’t all maverick, handsome spies? Oh, and his wife just left him. Groan. Of course, she has. She dumps him by answer-machine, because hey, let’s hit every trope on the action hero back story playbook.

But I want to focus on what’s getting missed in the mainstream, how Red Sea is so painfully tone-deaf when it comes to Ethiopia and Africa in general. We’re talking drum cymbals crashing to the floor.

The film is the brain child of Israeli filmmaker Gideon Raff, the guy behind the original Homeland TV series. He told Vanity Fair that he already knew about the airlifts, but “he flew to Israel to track down Mossad agents… as well as some of the Ethiopians who courageously left their homes so they could flee to Jerusalem.”

One wonders how much actual time Raff spent with the Ethiopians because they are hardly in the movie. Instead, we spend most of the film with our white heroes. We tense up with them as they try to clear airport security in Khartoum. We see them discover the shabby hotel. We see their operation get a close-call and nearly get exposed. It’s a diving resort, so we get National Geographic diving porn of blue sea and pretty fish. We even get a genuinely cute episode of German tourists dropping in out of nowhere and forcing them to play hotel managers for real.

What we don’t get is any idea of the Ethiopian refugees as a people, let alone as individuals.

There is a paint-by-numbers scene of them in trouble at the start of the film, in a village with traditional tukuls and no modern buildings, even though folks are wearing a mix of traditional clothing and modern Western jeans and shirts. Then our white savior enters (always get the star in early) to do what he does best — thinking on his feet and running to the rescue, in this case saving a stray kid. Later, there is one single scene with the refugees where we dwell on their plight. It lasts at most two minutes.

So who are the Ethiopian Jews? Why did the Israeli government start caring about them? You have to wonder, because so many supportive characters routinely insult them, insult Africans, make racist comments that yes, ring true to the era, but give us no insight into why Tel Aviv gave a damn at all.

And how did Raff miss such a great opportunity to touch our hearts? Because Ethiopian Judaism has to be as fascinating as its Christianity and Islam. It’s a country with Christian monasteries in thatched huts, with Lalibela’s churches carved out of volcanic rock, with Harar’s beautiful casbah mosques. Surely, there have got to be cultural aspects you can highlight to bring this minority into focus. How do you ignore the chance to show why Israelis should feel a special connection to this completely unique branch of their own faith? Nope, all we get is a rushed packing of a menorah. That’s it.

And there is no context, none whatsoever, provided over Ethiopia itself. The opening narration speaks of “the government” in a civil war. Well, that government was the Marxist Derg, a genocidal regime with a body count that rivaled the Khmer Rouge. For crying out loud, there is a whole museum dedicated to its horrors in Addis Ababa, complete with clear plastic boxes of skulls and bones! But again, Raff gives us no clue as to why the Jews are in specific jeopardy. Chris Evans later uses the word “Derg” so casually and quickly that any viewer who doesn’t know the historical background won’t have a clue as to what he’s referring to. It’s only a semi-exotic word.

This is also a movie that is supposed to take place partly in Sudan where the only major portrayals of Sudanese are: 1) a corrupt official; 2) a sadistic and homicidal army colonel; and 3) a terrified, veiled hotel servant.

There is only one — one — Ethiopian character we’re given to identify with, and we learn next to nothing about him. He’s played by Michael K. Williams, who viewers might recognize from The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. He does a reasonably okay job with what he’s got to work with, but…

Are you going to tell me, that even with Raff shooting his film in South Africa and Namibia, he couldn’t find Ethiopian actors who could have filled in the minor roles and as extras?

I am lucky enough to know someone who worked on the post-production of the film, and my source informed me that not only did the producers not bother to cast any genuine Ethiopians to play the refugees, it only occurred to them at the last minute that they should include Amharic and get fluent speakers to loop dialogue in post…!

What makes Red Sea such an egregious misstep is that we’re now in a time when black stars, black writers and black producers are speaking out over the lack of representation in films. They’re impatient, and justifiably so, with white savior tropes and not getting their own narratives on the big screen. So why, if African Americans won’t settle for that kind of bullshit in Hidden Figures or Harriet, does Hollywood thinks it’s still okay to inject them into a film about Africa?

Plus, Netflix, with a certain degree of fanfare, announced it’s now going after the African market. If so, it should do better than an outing like The Red Sea Diving Resort.

We think we can help with that. We have a film with African heroes, with an African story in which Africans ultimately win. Instead of just pouring scorn on a lousy movie, I thought, Okay, smartass, put your creative chops where your mouth is. Jump to Part Two to see what I’m talking about.

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.

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