Black Earth Rising review – Michaela Coel shines in this rich, demanding drama

Hugo Blick combines adoption, mental health, the Rwandan genocide and the international criminal court, as Coel shows she can handle serious drama

Black Earth Rising is not the kind of drama that allows its audience to be caught napping. In the first couple of minutes alone, a Q&A session with an esteemed human rights lawyer dissolves into a ferocious argument over the “neo-colonialist bullshit” and “self-righteous western paternalism” of the international criminal court (ICC). Moments after we see an animated sequence of a young girl being lifted from a pit of bodies.

Anyone familiar with writer/director/producer Hugo Blick’s previous lofty BBC series The Shadow Line and The Honourable Woman will know he has a flair for unapologetically complex thrillers that pick away at global conspiracies. This is rich, demanding drama that is well worth investing in.

The Honourable Woman was set against the backdrop of the Israel-Palestine conflict; with Black Earth Rising, Blick widens his scope even further, to examine the moral jurisdiction of the ICC and the west’s relationship with Africa. Harriet Walter plays a barrister, Eve Ashby, whose adopted daughter, Kate, survived the Rwandan genocide. Kate (Michaela Coel, proving she can do serious just as well as comedy) is dealing with her own ghosts, but when Eve takes on the prosecution of a warlord responsible for recruiting child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – though, crucially, also for halting the slaughter of the Tutsis in 1994 – Kate begins to question who is on the right side, and what the right side is.

And this is only part of the overall story. As all good drama should, Black Earth Rising asks big, thorny questions, stoking debate rather than closing it down, not least when it comes to conversations over history and to whom it belongs.

At a time when the global appetite for political cooperation is in decline, what does it mean to have an international court presiding over predominantly African cases? “I discovered that most, if not all, of the ICC’s formal indictments were against 40-odd black Africans,” Blick has said, of his inspiration for the series. Are we past the age of western interference? Should there be, as one character demands early on, “African solutions for African problems?” Is the ICC enacting self-righteous western paternalism, tainting the global image of an entire continent, or is Eve, as she appears to truly believe, delivering justice to those who need it most?

Harriet Walter as Eve Ashby and Lucian Msamati as David Runihura
Harriet Walter as Eve Ashby and Lucian Msamati as David Runihura Photograph: BBC/Forgiving Earth Ltd/Sophie Mutevelian

Clearly there are no easy answers, and that point is pressed home; one particularly harrowing scene involving UN peacekeepers shows that honourable intentions are not the same as fair and just results.

This all takes place against a backdrop of corruption and cover-ups in which everything could be a threat and it seems impossible to take anyone at their word. It weaves a web of possible leads and connections. Why this warlord, and what is the link to Eve and Kate? What’s in the envelope? And where did John Goodman, playing the boss of the law firm Kate works at, get that ice cream?

As much as it’s an examination of moral boundaries and international justice, it’s also a solid thriller, taking its time to lay the breadcrumbs of several mysteries amid a constant murmur of menace. It also looks fantastic. Blick loves a lingering shot and there are several conversations lit almost in silhouette that could have come straight from the stage. The cast are as good as it gets.

The fact that it crams at least a feature film’s worth of plot into the opening episode could indicate that such a pace will be impossible to sustain, but then again, Blick has managed it before, even if The Shadow Line did turn out to be mostly, sort of, about pensions. Black Earth Rising offers more than ratings-grabbing popcorn thrills. It flings an enormous cast of characters into a series of desperately combustible situations, and it demands that you keep up. It is, potentially, quite brilliant.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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