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black earth rising poster

The Past Will Not Stay Buried

Main Cast: Michaela Coel, John Goodman

Creator: Hugo Blick

Have you ever thought you knew your history only to be thoroughly disabused of that notion by a television program or a movie? If not, this may be your chance. Black Earth Rising is about the genocide in Rwanda, and will leave you searching for more information from the first episode.

The premise seems fairly straight forward at first. Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter) is a British lawyer who specializes in international law and the prosecution of war criminals. She is also the adoptive mother of Kate (Michaela Coel), a Rwandan genocide survivor. When Eve is handed the opportunity to prosecute an African militia leader, it puts her at odds with Kate (who is a legal investigator) as the man is seen as one of those responsible for ending the genocide.  Kate’s boss, Michael Ennis (John Goodman), tries to bridge the dispute, assuring Kate that her mother knows what is best.

Don’t let the relative simplicity of the premise fool you. Black Earth Rising has twists and turns all over the place and nothing is as it seems.  The horrors of the Rwandan genocide are slowly reeled out as we learn about the politics that led to the events themselves and those that shaped the future of the country afterwards. It’s a minefield of secrets and lies and atrocities that is not for the faint of heart, and for Kate it will change her life in immeasurable ways.

The strengths of Black Earth Rising (also known as The Forgiving Earth) lie in the deep, complex plotting and the incredible performances of Michaela Coel and John Goodman. The story is heartbreakingly complicated, and we see how innocents are caught – and slaughtered – in the name of a political game they never agreed to play. The various powers involved all have motives, and not one of them is pure. We see this all through the eyes of Kate and Michael, who come at it from very different perspectives. Kate is a survivor, one who remembers almost nothing but carries the trauma nonetheless. Michael was there, saw it all, and has spent a good part of his life searching for some sense of justice. Both characters have paid extraordinarily high prices for their peripheral involvement in someone else’s battles.

Coel is stunning in this role. The only thing I had seen her in before was Chewing Gum, a raunchy (but very funny) British comedy, and a couple of appearances on Black Mirror. She sheds those characters completely and becomes a wounded young woman who isn’t sure quite why her life keeps derailing but yearns to find answers. She is not afraid to ugly cry and her torment is absolutely heartbreaking. If people were starting to forget the horror that was the Rwandan genocide, she is here to remind them.  John Goodman blew me away in his role as a London barrister. He is one of the few people other than her mother that has concrete ties to Kate’s early life. He cares deeply about her, and about trying to right some of the wrongs that left her an orphan. Goodman is such a chameleon – not something you would necessarily imagine from someone with such distinct physicality and with a long running sitcom under his belt that could have typecast him for the rest of his career. He can be funny and charming and vulnerable and menacing – and he is at turns all of those things as Michael Ennis. The dynamic between these characters is as complicated as the lives they lead and both actors turn in stellar performances. Also excellent are the supporting performers, in particular Noma Dumezweni as a Rwandan government official and friend of both Michael and Eve, and Lucian Msamati as an advisor to the Rwandan president.

The filmmakers involved in Black Earth Rising also chose to use a unique, very stylized method of presenting stories from the past. A combination of voice narration and animation brings a surreal heaviness to each story, taking the audience into a time when everything was wrong, confused, and as elusive as smoke. It was a risk that really pays off in emotional impact.

While Black Earth Rising is a work of fiction, the events around which is revolves are not. Writer/director Blick did his homework and based the series on the atrocities that took place in 1994 in Rwanda as well as the political machinations that occurred before, during, and after those events. Setting the series in the present allowed him to examine not only the immediate horror, but the aftermath for all involved as well as the slow wheels of international justice. The result is not always easy to watch, but it is compellingly and deeply written, remarkably performed, and incorporates uniquely stylish elements that add an additional layer to the narrative. I highly recommend this limited series (composed of eight one hour episodes) for anybody who loves BBC dramas or has any interest in this part of history and its ongoing impact on the lives of those who survived it.

Black Earth Rising is a BBC production that is streaming on Netflix in the U.S.