*This is a user-submitted post by Jordan Hashemi-Briskin*
As we have all seen, over the past 30 years or so, animation studios in the West have been making considerable progress in crafting stories that explore non-Western cultures. In the past two decades, we have seen a boatload of movies and TV shows featuring characters from Asia, Oceania (Australia and the Pacific Islands), and the Americas, and, for the most part, they have proven very reverent of the cultures that they depict.
However, I’ve come to notice that there is one region that still has yet to be properly explored by Western animation: Africa. (And, considering that it is Black History Month in the U.S. at the time that I’m writing this, I feel that it’s especially appropriate to broach this topic now.)
On the African continent itself, the animation industry has been growing steadily over the past couple of decades (though it is still not quite as well developed as in Europe, Japan, and the U.S., on account of the often scanty resources), with local artists using the medium to teach African history and familiarize local children with their own narrative traditions. When one takes this into consideration, it’s all the more vexing that the West has been slow to catch up.
Now, that isn’t to say that Africa itself hasn’t been represented in Western animation; the problem is, the continent’s human cultures have not been paid much attention, if at all. The vast majority of Western animated productions set on the Mother Continent either depict fantastical pseudo-African societies (consider the Waziri tribe in The Legend of Tarzan), or don’t depict humans at all (The Lion King, for example); pretty much the only exception that I have seen is Michel Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (as well as its two sequels).
Likewise, most of the African-produced animated features to be released in the West have centered around the animal kingdom (e.g., South Africa’s Jock of the Bushveld, Khumba, and Zambezia). Compounding this lack of representation even further is the fact that the few human characters of African ancestry in the Western animation sphere are members of the African diaspora (and mostly of the Americas, at that).
I’ve touched on the scant representation of indigenous North America and the problematic (but admittedly improving) portrayal of the Middle East in mainstream Western animation, but the almost total non-representation of African culture and history is just as galling to me. Africa is brimming with diverse and vibrant cultures, each with its own traditions and languages, and all chock full of stories that deserve to be told to as wide an audience as possible. (And bear in mind, I’ve always held a tremendous fascination with African storytelling.) Some such stories – like those of Anansi the Spider from Ghana – have enjoyed some popularity in the form of storybooks, but animation, to my mind, would be an even more effective medium in which to tell them.
And it’s not just folklore that could stand to be adapted to animation either; it would also be a great way to teach Westerners (particularly children) about African history. In fact, I (aspiring animation director that I am) have long been incubating the idea of an animated adaptation of the Epic of Sunjata, which tells the story of the founder of the Mali Empire, and have also been considering a feature-length animated film based on the life of the late Kenyan environmentalist and social/political activist Wangari Maathai (informed in large part by a 2015 childrens’ book about her life and work).
To restate the point, the cultures and history of Africa have been overlooked by Western animation for far too long, and it’s high time that they be given the spotlight – and the sooner, the better.