‘Black Earth Rising’ Raises Powerful Questions About How to Confront Genocide

In “Black Earth Rising,” a new drama from Netflix, the themes are so rich and provocative that they overcome any slight flaws in the narrative itself. There have been many shows and TV movies about war and genocide in Africa, including Netflix’s own impressive “Beasts of No Nation,” but this is one of the few attempts at exploring the actual pursuit of justice. The drama still goes deeper than that, posing tough questions about the different perceptions involved in a conflict, especially from participants in the warring camps. More delicately, it also subtly comments on the role of non-Africans.

Michaela Coel plays Kate Ashby, a legal investigator based in London who survived the Rwandan genocide as a young girl. Left without parents, she was raised by a British judge named Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter). Kate still suffers from trauma and has a history of using narcotics as a coping mechanism. There are soon tensions at home when Eve is tapped to be a judge at the Hague for the trial of a general, Simon Nyamoya (Danny Sapani), accused of war crimes. Kate is immediately conflicted because Nyamoya is a Tutsi like her, meaning he fought against the regime that butchered her people. Aiding Eve is expat barrister Michael Ennis (John Goodman). But before the trial can begin, Nyamoya and Eve are killed by assassins. This shocking development is not only another blow to Kate, but it also puts her on the frontline of proceedings regarding the genocide. Michael approaches her to be his investigator as he now represents another general, Alice Munezero (Noma Dumezweni), also accused of war crimes in Rwanda, including the murder of a priest. Now Kate will begin probing and interviewing participants from all sides of the conflict, including French government officials who were also involved. But the deeper she goes, the closer she will get to dark forces intent on keeping the truth buried forever.

From the beginning “Black Earth Rising” makes it clear that it won’t be just another series about violent, irreparable Africa. The opening scene of the first episode is actually quite striking. Eve is giving a talk and an African audience member chastises her for having a white savior complex, even questioning why Africa is such an obsession when other brutal conflict zones get little attention. As the show progresses it doesn’t shy away from such questions and like few thrillers, it poses very real ethical and moral dilemmas at the heart of politics. As the news is again dominated by the question of failing states and what role the major powers should have in such crises, “Black Earth Rising” dares to look at geopolitics from a personal, yet global vantage point. Kate is the hero, but is she always right? When Eve takes on the Nyamoya case Kate lambasts her with comments like, “It’s like the Second World War is over and we’re Jewish and you’re prosecuting Eisenhower!” Eve replies that if Eisenhower had committed war crimes he should have gone to trial as well. This show takes seriously the idea that in war it’s not always so black and white, and all sides try to rationalize their actions.

As a thriller this show defines slow burner and so viewers might be more engaged by the politics than the pace, at least for the first few episodes. This is not a rushed narrative where everything is resolved via action. Indeed, the slight flaw in the structure is that so much of it is devoted to discussing politics instead of dramatizing it. The first two episodes are all about setting up the show’s ideas, with Kate debating Even, then Michael. When she interrogates French government officials involved in the Rwandan conflict she has a hard time staying neutral, especially when one official openly blames the Tutsis for their fate. Can anyone be truly neutral when it comes to war or anything that had a personal impact? Michaela Coel is superbly cast in the role, combining a force of will with the vulnerability of someone who is struggling with scars that won’t go away, ever.

As a thriller “Black Earth Rising” begins to truly pick up after the third episode, as Kate goes deeper into her investigation and sudden, terrifying things happen. But in this show violent twists are even more jarring because they shatter the slow burner tone. One of the first, gut-wrenching moments happens when Kate is swimming, lost in her thoughts and is suddenly entrapped by closing pool panels. She escapes and finds a message scrawled on a mirror. But there are no corny super villains in this show, instead corrupt individuals and regimes. The twists in this show are elegantly riveting. Dead men will suddenly appear, characters will have vicious, near brushes with death.

The characters are all finely drawn, with nice little touches. Goodman’s Michael visits his daughter, who lies in a hospital bed comatose. He’s a good enough man to get along honestly with his ex’s new husband, and his performance is one of measured, quiet wisdom. Kate is also given interesting side stories that add rich dimensions to her life’s backstory, including an episode where she visits Eve’s sister, a devoted Catholic angry Eve was cremated. These moments also hint at interesting subtext about race relations. Indeed, the show deals in an interesting way with the meddling of European and other western powers in Africa, and the serious question of how responsible is outside meddling for the problems in developing countries. The French and others scoff and look puzzled, even arrogant, when trying to explain to Kate what happened in her own country. When she returns to Rwanda it is a powerfully executed episode, full of pathos.

Shows like “Black Earth Rising” remind us that TV can be a great vehicle to tell sagas that have more to offer than just mere entertainment. Good storytelling captures the wider world, and this series not only delivers suspense, but much to actually think about afterwards.

Black Earth Rising” season one premieres Jan. 25 on Netflix.