This review contains spoilers.
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Making lucid drama about intricate real-world subjects takes a rare ability. To filter centuries of complex political conflict into the story of a few characters and elements—a daughter, her mother, her job—is a feat requiring expertise and perspective, both of which writer-director Hugo Blick reliably demonstrates here.
In 2014’s The Honourable Woman, Blick staged the Israeli-Palestine conflict as a spy thriller. In Black Earth Rising, he frames the 1994 Rwandan genocide and its aftermath as a family drama. This series’ main characters, a leading international prosecutor and her Rwandan-born, genocide-surviving adopted daughter, could hardly be more rarefied, but their relationship offers an accessible route in to the political morass.
Michaela Coel plays Kate Ashby, a wryly funny depressive in recovery from a suicide attempt, now working as a legal investigator at her mother’s firm. Harriet Walter is Eve Ashby, a celebrated international barrister and “the best prosecutor there is” according to colleague Michael Ennis (John Goodman). Walter’s character adopted Kate after the savagery committed against the Tutsi people in 1994, when Eve was prosecuting Rwandan war criminals in The Hague.
Eve’s new case in The Hague drives a wedge between her and Kate in episode one. Defendant General Nyamoya (Danny Sapani) played a key role in ending the Rwandan atrocity and is regarded by some—including Kate—as a hero, but in the years since the war ended, has been accused of pillaging the country’s natural resources and recruiting child soldiers. His former comrades, the US and the wider international community want him tried, and Eve Ashby has accepted the prosecuting role. It’s a decision Kate says, bitterly, she will never understand.
That’s the overall shape of Black Earth Rising, the structure from inside which it will ask pertinent questions. Is the work of the International Criminal Court “neo-colonialist bullshit”, as aggressively suggested to Eve in the episode’s opening minutes by law student Jaalen (Paapa Essiedu)? Should African problems, as he states, be reserved for African solutions? What are the moral obligations of the West towards its former colonies, and, at a time “when nations are turning their backs on international responsibility”, what does it mean to do what’s right?
It’s provocative and intelligent, and has a knack for making the subject matter intelligible without becoming a text book. The African-set scenes ground the drama in its proper location, ensuring this isn’t just a cerebral courtroom drama filled by worthy debates.
There’s action too, in a case of mistaken identity that leads to a bungled assassination attempt, and thriller intrigue as to what’s inside the mysterious envelope containing a secret Eve has kept from Kate all her life.
As the human face of an agonizing moment in African and international history, Michaela Coel is remarkable. The vein of dark wit she mines is a boon of hiring skilled comedians like her and John Goodman (“I once shot at a polar bear… missed.”) to play drama. Coel is always arresting on screen, and here, next to veterans Goodman and Harriet Walter, she doesn’t just hold her own, but holds the whole thing together.
Exposition, always tricky with so complex and serious a topic, is carefully handled, dispersed among news reports and threaded through dialogue. In the real-world news footage and the way subtitles fade away as English replaces the indigeanous languages, transparency rather than naturalism seems to have been the goal.
That much is clear from Blick’s expressive directorial choices. Kate and Eve face one another in profile against a stark white backdrop more than once. Eve takes her seat in court and a dream-like interlude sees an African mask attached to a dummy explode. It’s ambitious, serious, and like its cast, far from ordinary.
Black Earth Rising continues next Monday at 9pm on BBC Two.