Black Earth Rising, written and directed by Hugo Blick, is like reading two opposing textbook entries haphazardly disguised as a legal thriller. The eight-episode season hops back and forth between Africa and Europe, with its quality wildly dependent on its continent.
The jaded Kate (Michaela Coel), a legal investigator adopted from Rwanda by British international prosecutor Eve (Harriet Walter), is personally and professionally invested—along with her colleague, Michael (John Goodman), and countless others—in the fallout of war and genocide in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. When not confined to legal offices, meeting rooms, and courtrooms, Black Earth Rising offers glimpses of vital filmmaking, ripe with symbolism. Perhaps that’s because it’s something that hasn’t been filmed countless times before. Perhaps it’s because Blick is best when he’s not shackled to his own dialogue.
The series seems excited to take every paternal mzungu in the neocolonialist legal system to task, but everything’s said far too bluntly to be as savvy as its choice of subject matter. Though there are some harshly clever lines regarding the ubiquitous casual racism—Eve excuses herself to a critical Black audience member at her lecture by saying she has a Black daughter and is promptly shut down—most of the talking is over-the-top and exhausting rather than suspenseful, plainspoken, or insightful. And there’s a lot of talking.
That’s because there’s a lot to talk about. The relationships among the various militias working on all sides of the conflict in the DRC—where heroic armies can exploit a nation’s industry as quickly as they can stymie a genocide—and the workings of Western-led international bodies are fascinating to unpack. The multiple sources of power at work in the DRC and Rwanda pit companies, military leaders, missionaries, government officials, and the International Criminal Court against each other in a cynical social bluffing game, and Blick is dead-set on Kate playing Devil’s advocate to the West’s accepted version of events.
The trial of General Simon Nyamoya (Danny Sapani), where this barrelful of intentions ignites, should kick off a morally murky reckoning with the West’s influence in Central Africa, and things certainly get complicated. But the wooden acting seems intent on making the material even denser than it is, using the slow, stilted speech of someone trying to put on an air of dignity and importance: You can almost see the periods between the words on the script. The result is a political drama that revels in the mire, holding you at arms length with its paper-thin human grimaces even as clarity seems only a few conversational, specific, humanized workers away.
Sapani, Lucian Msamati (who plays a Rwandan political agent), and some of the supporting cast escape the fate that befalls Coel (who’s asked to flip between stoic and explosive with aggravatingly little in-between), Walter, and many of those with bigger roles, imbuing their characters with emotion and history conveyed through small gestures. Goodman, with his relative lightness, seems constantly skeptical of the situations in which he finds himself—and the words falling out of him while he’s there.
They may have soapy tics, like a comatose daughter or a terribly handled mental illness, but the characters never seem more than word vehicles. They’re placed in a given situation to make a point, delivered with climactic gravitas, rather than, say, to be a person or to follow their own motivations: Coel is in such-and-such scene to be a Tutsi, while her scene partner is there to be callous towards the Tutsi genocide. On-the-nose about their Big Issues, these moments also studiously avoid specificity, generating those annoying mysteries that’re only fueled by vagueness and a criminal overuse of pronouns. (“You mean that? Oh, well, only if she agrees to it.”) When the series occasionally erupts into blunt action—as with a well-timed and deftly filmed assassination—it’s quickly undermined by an off-screen news report over-explaining it.
The exceptions here are the often exciting scenes set in Africa: Black-and-white, animated representations of terrible memories contain the kind of visual power that rarely feels as cheap as grandstanding speeches. The same goes for a tragic vignette about an idealistic U.N. officer and a tennis court—using an inventive setting and a flawed character, it says more than a hundred monologues.
While Blick admirably wants to inform and interrogate a topic most of the world would like to ignore—and has picked a genre that seems apt for it, if it were handled differently—Black Earth Rising is overly confident in all the wrong places and lacks trust in all the right ones. The legal thriller’s frustrating bundle of potential never quite makes its case, despite the courage of its convictions.
Black Earth Rising premieres Friday, Jan. 25 on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.