In his The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981), the American cultural critic, Fredric Jameson says that to understand a film, we must first begin by understanding its material history, that is, the history of its production. “Always historicize!”, he admonished.
What he means is that cultural texts like films, novels, art, and even newspaper stories do not tell us much by themselves because they benefit from the range of ideas and narratives prevailing at the time and place of their production. But the prevailing narratives themselves are deeply influenced by the prevailing politics and ideology of the time and place within which, Jameson continues, the author or producer of a text, the act of consumption (watching films, reading novels) and of production (writing, producing) are all intimately bound up, whether those involved are aware of this or not.
In this sense, Jameson concludes, all films—and cultural texts—are political; that is, they have a “political unconscious” which cultural analysis must pierce through to make sense of the text. For Jameson, then, the analyst must move from the text itself, a film say, to the context; that is, the historical, social and political environments of its production. It is only by laying bare the underlying tensions and contradictions between subjects and objects in the text and those in the context can society truly hope to reclaim itself or chart a new path forward.
The beauty of Jameson’s methodical approach to cultural analysis—his ideas weren’t entirely new even at the time—is that it can be applied not only to individual films, but also to whole genres, cinematic periods, and national and global cultural industries. Take the British film industry. Some of the most popular films in Britain of the past decade or so, both in terms of production and reception, have tended to be period dramas about old Kings, Queens, nobles, prime ministers and other national historical icons.
From the analytical perspective very briefly sketched here, we would say that this is not entirely a coincidence or just entertainment, but politics. For Britain as a diminished former Empire, national glory lies, not ahead, but in the past. Harking back into the past in such TV series as Downton Abbey also reflects an urge to reclaim an imagined national identity that no longer exists. The past in Britain is the only place where there are no Indians, no Africans or Caribbeans, and no Eastern Europeans. The gloried past is all-white and all-British, these films seem to be saying, a narrative that more recent period dramas like Bridgerton challenge. But the longing for this imagined past is at the very core of all Brexit politics in Britain today.
Much the same can be said of almost all American films of any genre, from cartoons to science fiction. American films are obsessed with world dominance—the persistent national political ambition—in politics, economy and technology; by representing other peoples as “the enemy”, or “the bad guys” (think Russians, Chinese, Arabs, Muslims, but never NATO Europeans); and with pervasive, if now more subtle, racism against blacks. The medium of representation in Hollywood may be film or entertainment but the issues addressed are not only entirely political, but also political in the specific sense understood in Washington and other 50 state capitals.
The Nollywood industry, too, can be read holistically in this way. Religion and religious symbols are pervasive in our films not because religion guides or influences much individual and collective behaviour as prescribed, but because competition for religious space is the most intensely political activity in Nigeria today. We are ready then, I think, to apply this framework to an individual film, in this case, the Netflix 2021 film, Amina, based on the historical, perhaps even mythical, story of Queen Amina, the famed female ruler of Zazzau during the 16th century.
The film tells the story of how a young Amina, together with her sister, Zaria, after whom the ancient city is now named, acquired military training, and of the political intrigues and wars that led to her father Barkwa Turunku’s assassination by poisoning and her own ascension to the throne following victory in a civil war. But from the point of view of our analytical framework so far, three things stand out in the film.
First, the film is heavy on slavery, with more than necessary scenes of slaves being sold, bought, and ‘brutalized’ as if it were a film about southern United States in the 18th century. For a film made in Nigeria by Nigerians, and partly funded by the federal government through the Bank of Industry’s Nollywood Fund, this is baffling, but not surprising. In fact, it is easy to trace the intellectual and ideological history of this thematic over-representation of in Amina, and see where it is coming from.
Anyone familiar with the history of northern Nigeria, that is, the version of it written by the Europeans, which, unfortunately, remains the dominant but not necessarily the ‘correct’ or ‘true’ version, would have noticed that slavery is also a heavy theme in that history. The reason for this is not far-fetched. When the colonialists arrived in Africa, they told stories about themselves, and about Africans that served mainly to help legitimize the conquest itself: that they were here to open up trade, to end ‘corruption’ and internecine wars, to and bring civilization to peoples who still wore leaves and skins, and end ‘heathen’ practices such as the killing of twins, cannibalism, the burying of the living with dead kings, and so on.
The late Nigerian sociologist, Peter Ekeh calls all of these narrative politics of colonial conquest “colonial ideologies” because not all of them were true or true in the sense presented by the conquerors. In the specific case of northern Nigeria, however, most of these stories could not fly because the civilization they met on the ground was already well advanced, even if it looked to the east rather than the west. So, slavery was accentuated and over-emphasized as a major justification for colonial conquest.
Unfortunately, for a film that reportedly took 25 years to make, the producers of Amina have reinforced this narrative politics, rather than challenge it, the same way that Nollywood reinforces the idea that Africans barely wore clothes in our recent past and had no more than village politics, rather than empires and states of the Europeans, by repeatedly casting bare-chested men and women fighting over farmlands and village maidens in many of our historical Nollywood films on DSTV.
Happily, Amina did not suffer from this last bout of ignorant self-representation as, unlike many other historical Nollywood films, many of the non-slave characters are fully clothed. Yet, the story it tells is rather flimsy and inconsequential from a historical or feminist point of view. The primary focus on Amina’s ascension to the throne, rather than on her rule, which historically lasted over three decades is itself a serious indication of our general incompetence in story-telling. But even within the context of how she took power, the dialogue is generally lazy and unremarkable, and the rendition shoddy and predictable by an ensemble cast.
In the end, we watch a 105-minute-long film about a woman who, 500 years ago, broke a barrier no woman in the United States has yet matched today, without learning how politically and militarily savvy she was. What military strategies did she adopt to win her wars? How realistic and ground-breaking were these strategies in comparison to the prevailing military strategies of her time or today’s? What political manoeuvrers did she have to make to capture and sustain power over such a long-time? What foods did her people eat, what goods did they trade in and exchange apart from slaves, and how did husbands and wives relate to each other in 16th century northern Nigeria?
You would expect a serious film about Amina to “retell” all of these things in vivid representational detail. But alas, we may have to wait a further 25 years to learn all these about our own past. Nevertheless, it is not too bad a start.