Black Earth Rising, Hugo Blick’s sprawling, ambitious new drama, is stellar television that demands the audience pays attention.
British television is hardly starving for great dramas these days, but among them all, Hugo Blick’s unapologetically layered and demanding new show Black Earth Rising might be the very best. It’s certainly the most ambitious, and the most trusting of the general public to engage in the debate sprung from its lofty topics of mental health, Rwandan genocide, international law, morality, and the West’s relationship with Africa.
It’s a lot to chew on, and the opening hour contains an absurd amount of plot being churned through at a breakneck pace. But Black Earth Rising is never confusing so much as energising; it prompts questions with no easy answers, and encourages spirited thought and debate about history – our own and others’ – which is refreshing in our current, tacky age of binary, zero-sum political discourse.
In the first episode, Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter), a barrister with a fearsome reputation, agrees to take on the prosecution of a warlord responsible for recruiting child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is complicated by the fact that the warlord was also responsible for halting the slaughter of the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 – a genocide that Eve’s adopted daughter, Kate (a stunning Michaela Coel) survived. Immediately Black Earth Rising presents not just a criminal prosecution, but one that is representative of the moral jurisdiction of the international criminal court, the relationship between mother and daughter, the legacy of history, the relative weighing of atrocities, and the nature of physical and mental trauma.
This is weighty stuff, but it is well worth persevering with. The reason it works is, I suspect, that Black Earth Rising makes a point of encouraging discussion rather than shutting it down. It presents strong viewpoints and then equally-strong contrary positions, such as in an opening scene in which Eve is berated by a student who insists that the time for Western interference in international affairs has passed, and that “African problems require African solutions”. Eve, to her credit, never seems less than convinced of her principles; that she’s delivering justice to those deserving of it, whatever their skin colour or nation of origin. She might resort to the equivalent of “I have black friends” as a defence, but she’s doing so out of frustration that a career spent upholding the law is being disparaged simply because she’s a white woman convicting black men of war crimes.
This, of course, is the point. Blick himself has said that his inspiration for creating the show came from discovering that the vast majority of the ICC’s formal indictments were against black Africans. But who is committing atrocities in Africa? Should they not be brought to justice simply because they’re black Africans? Should they be tried by an African prosecutor, of the same crimes, under the same laws? Would that make a difference? There are no easy answers in Black Earth Rising beyond the plain reality that life and history and war and justice are complicated notions with far-reaching and unforeseeable consequences, and not just for those directly involved.
This is, simply, quite brilliant stuff, and it works as a straight-up thriller too, weaving tangled webs of intrigue in almost every scene. Everyone, from the warlord on trial – who eagerly turned himself in – to Eve and Kate, to John Goodman as Eve’s mentor, has something more to offer; some secret they’re not sharing, some connection that hasn’t been explained, or a perspective that matters to them more than they’re letting on. A huge, talented cast obviously bolsters Black Earth Rising, but its true success is in daring to actually be about something at a time when most art is terrified to be about anything at all.