In “Black Earth Rising,” new Friday on Netflix, everyone is sick. The African president? Seizures. The war criminal? Brain tumors. The American official? Ovarian cyst. The war-crimes lawyer? Prostate cancer.
What they’ve really got a case of, though, is that favorite malady of art house movies and their prestige-television offspring: the modern world. In the unlikely event that you’re not clear on this, the writer and director Hugo Blick spells it out toward the end of the eight-episode BBC series. “Is everyone in my world ill?” one of the sickies asks, to which another replies, “Call it a symptom of collective guilt.”
The source of that guilt, in this case, is the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the conflicts it generated. The larger indictment is of colonialism and post-colonial condescension and exploitation, though from a Western angle in which the doughty, underappreciated British do what they can to set things right. (The Americans and the French, not so much.)
Michaela Coel stars as Kate Ashby, a genocide survivor raised in Britain who now works as an investigator for Michael Ennis, an American lawyer in London who specializes in war-crimes cases and is played, slyly and effervescently, by John Goodman. They become involved in the attempt to extradite an accused genocidaire back to Rwanda, a case whose complications provide a varied assessment of the region’s history and prospects while stringing out a murderous conspiracy plot and eventually revealing the dark secrets of Kate’s childhood.
Blick has been here before. One of the most striking things about “Black Earth Rising” is its similarities to the previous series he wrote and directed, “The Honourable Woman,” which starred Maggie Gyllenhaal as an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman. Both take a bloody, complex, seemingly intractable international situation (Palestine and Israel in the earlier show) and tie it to a mystery thriller that plays out in direly melodramatic fashion.
More particularly, each centers on a woman who outdoes everyone else onscreen in victimhood. Like Gyllenhaal’s character in “Honourable Woman,” Kate is defined by suffering and trauma. The redemption, or at least resolution, each story offers is the heroine’s coming to terms with the horrors of her past.
The allegorical intertwining of personal and world history can certainly work — “Reds” comes to mind. But Blick is so unsubtle as a writer and, it appears, so unhelpful as a director that he torpedoes the fine actresses he casts. You could set your watch by the times Gyllenhaal had to play her character in some sort of helpless breakdown. (She did it well enough to win a Golden Globe.)
As Kate, Coel has the slight advantage of playing anger rather than grief, though her character, as written, is no less cardboard than Gyllenhaal’s was. She’s another avatar of injustice and post-traumatic stress, once again embodied as a female emotional basket case.
And so Coel, the brilliant writer and comic actor of “Chewing Gum,” plays nearly every scene at the edge of a violent outburst and frequently beyond, into screaming jags of profanity and sarcasm. You can see the idea here — she’s so damaged she can’t help herself, and why should she? — and Coel does it with skill and great presence, but it doesn’t add up to a character, or a full-fledged performance. Presumably, though, it’s what Blick wanted.
And if he has a method, it’s overstatement. His characters don’t talk to each other — they give speeches, deliver homilies, make accusations or confessions and quote poetry, anything to avoid a normal human conversation. As a director, when he’s not being grimly literal, he’s all flourishes and shock effects.
When an unrepentant colonialist blows his brains out, they splatter all over a wall map of Africa. A conversation between two people sitting next to each other in a car is shot from outside their respective windshields, cutting between their separate faces. (They’re together but alone. We get it.) A standard, static shot of police cars arriving for an arrest stretches out to nearly a minute.
(To be fair, there’s nothing in “Black Earth Rising” that matches the scene in “Honourable Woman” in which a wife who has just shot the terrorist who killed her husband goes into labor and delivers a child while her house is being stormed by commandos.)
Along the way the series occasionally generates some suspense, and it’s pretty to look at, thanks to the cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski. Despite its deficiencies as drama, it also deserves credit for tying its narrative to recent African history and giving serious consideration to shattering events outside the Western Hemisphere.
It has sharp, moving performances by a supporting cast of African birth or heritage that includes Noma Dumezweni (Hermione in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” onstage), Lucian Msamati (of the Royal Shakespeare Company and “Game of Thrones”) and Abena Ayivor.
Best of all, it has Goodman, who combines intelligence and joy like no other actor, and here does everything he can to bring some humanity to Blick’s illustrated lecture. Across eight hours, even the gravest subjects benefit from a sense of humor.