In terms of black history, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 is a particularly dark moment. In only a hundred days 800,000 people were slaughtered in the culmination of a brutal civil war between the Tutsi and Hutu communities of Rwanda, ended only by the victory of the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front. Such a controversial issue is not suited for primetime BBC viewing, but Black Earth Rising is filled with intrigue and tension as much the BBC’s victorious hit drama Bodyguard.
The story revolves around a young legal investigator, Kate Ashly, played with tremendous zeal and sincerity by Michaela Coel of Chewing Gum and Black Mirror fame. Her role is different to the funny and loveable Tracey in Chewing Gum but one which Coel takes to naturally and gracefully. We meet Kate recovering from depression and a suicide attempt, looking to her boss Michael (John Goodman) for a case to get back into work. Kate is a Tutsi orphan of the genocide, rescued by barrister and now adoptive mother, Eve, and brought back to England. Kate’s past haunts her especially her lack of knowledge, ‘I don’t even know my real name!’ being a poignant line in the first episode, and this thirst for the truth about her family and beginnings drives the narrative.
The storyline begins with Tutsi General Nyamoya, a hero of the genocide’s defeat, handing himself into the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes in the DRC. Kate’s mother Eve, a renowned international lawyer, is selected to lead the prosecution, much to Kate’s dismay as she declares ‘we’re on the same side’ and argues it was Tutsi’s like Nyamoya who saved her and ended the genocide. In the second episode, Eve and Nyamoya are assassinated by Hutu extremists, leaving Kate and Michael to defend another Tutsi General, Munezero, after she is accused of further war crimes, now during the genocide.
Whilst this forms the main narrative of the series, the true drama lies within Kate’s quest to defeat her demons, find out who she really is, and, crucially, dispel the stereotypes of both her homeland and her culture. Kate’s strong character comes out best when attempting the last, a personal highlight being her quip when asked the annoying-yet-typical question ‘where are you from originally?’ to which she replies ‘from loving parents’.
Black independence and power are prolific themes in the series. The first scene being a university Q&A for Eve during which a black student asks if European legal intrusion is just more ‘self-righteous western paternalism’ against ‘crimes that would never have been committed had you not gone there in the first place.’
Black Earth Rising is a gripping and enthralling drama, especially for Black History Month with its strong black female characters in Kate and Munezero. Whilst some research may be needed to understand certain aspects of the story, though the drama does its best, those interested in Black or African history, or those looking for more intrigue after the demise of Bodyguard, should definitely check this out.