The scene is set, but the dialogue is not. Bruno sits at the front of a Texas talk show with his new African baby, describing himself as a single parent who thought it would be ‘a cool idea.’ The predominantly African-American crowd is outraged and, when asked why he adopted the child, he attributes the idea to people like Brangelina and Madonna: “And now Bruno has one.” The scene was, undoubtedly, absolutely hysterical - but by satirizing this well-known issue, the film also takes a courageous step in attacking such famous celebrities, a major departure from the usual reporters and journalists (the apparent intellectuals) who simply hail them for doing so many “great things to save Africa.”
Last week, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen released his new mockumentary film Brüno, in which he portrays an Austrian fashionista who will stop at nothing to become famous (not entirely unlike many of the interviewed characters in the movie). Cohen is known for his outlandish characters that satirize societal issues by filming ordinary people who are unaware they are in a major motion picture. In this particular case, Africa gets airtime “because it’s gotten popular." Bruno displays this idea more explicitly when he meets with two ditzy blondes from an L.A. PR firm who pronounce Darfur as “Da-four” (followed by a “Da-five” joke), and confirm that Africa is a ‘hot topic’ right now.
Looking past the obscenities and absolute craziness of the entire film, Baron Cohen makes an interesting – and important - point about Africa in the sense that this continent, made up of approximately 1 billion people from several thousand ethnic groups, has somehow managed to become a ‘fad.’ Charities for Darfur are strongly endorsed by George Clooney; Oprah Winfrey has a fund in South Africa for educating children; Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had their child, Shiloh, in Namibia and, in turn, donated $300,000 for a hospital. And the list goes on. While all these efforts sound admirable, why is it that no celebrities are rushing to endorse poor or homeless Americans? Well now, that would just be condescending, right? So why is it we can do this with Africans?
I find it to be utterly demeaning that we, as fellow human beings, can allow this many people and this many cultures of such a huge continent to be reduced to a charitable effort because of such a strong disconnect.
On the other hand, the issues many African countries are facing do require publicity and it cannot be argued that certain celebrities (whether it should be the case or not) have a lot of pull with the general population, more so than most politicians. But does it have to be done by ‘charitizing’ cultures? By making Africa simply a hot new trend, people often seek to follow in the footsteps of celebrities without fully understanding the issues. In addition, these do-good celebs are only furthering stereotypes about Africa (like constant war and lack of education), perpetuating an ‘us and them’ divide. Then again, are politicians any better or more knowledgeable about African issues? Nancy Pelosi can pick up the phone and call African experts just as easily as Bono can.
But what's even worse, the celebrity culture that infuses the desire to “give back” to Africa reinforces the idea that Africans don’t have a wealth of knowledge and perspectives about how to solve problems on their own, without the gracious philanthropists of the West. Where is the investment in African knowledge and better yet, what can we learn from them? Rather than blindly following a cause as a result of George Clooney’s good looks or sending malaria-preventing bed nets because it’s ‘the cool thing’, what would be so difficult about taking a second to read about the issues, where you may find that investment in say local production of bed nets would simultaneously prevent the disease as well as contribute to building infrastructure. Why swoop in and adopt children from all over the continent when hundreds of thousands are left behind and in conditions that need to be addressed? Never mind how African adoptions are reminiscent of imperial and colonial eras, when Africa was considered a place extremely different from other “civilized” places on Earth, and whose people needed to be collected and studied in order to figure out how best to “advance” them. These are the sentiments that seem to not only be subconsciously perpetuated, but are being widely and enthusiastically praised.
Cambridge-educated Baron Cohen once stated, “I remember, when I was in university I studied history, and there was this one major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw. And his quote was, ‘The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.’ I know it is not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but I think it’s an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic.” Perhaps this could be said about Africa as well. It is not that people are against helping Africa; they just turn the other cheek. So I suppose it is true that maybe it doesn’t matter who it is that makes people look twice, just as long as they do. But has all this celebrity attention really made people any more educated about the actual issues, or is it just that "Africa 'ist hot?'"
Bruno’s attempt at fame through Africa did not work in the film, but however outrageous, the film is provocative when it comes to commentary on Africa and is a push in the right direction for getting truly informed – and having a good laugh while you do it.
By Laura Martin, Executive Office Intern, Africa Action