March 6 of this year marked the 64th anniversary of Ghana’s independence. February 24 was the 55th anniversary of the US-backed coup which overthrew Kwame Nkrumah, who led the country to that independence. What transpired between the two events is highly contested history, pitting Nkrumah as an icon of revolutionary socialist Pan-Africanism against CIA-manufactured post-coup claims of corrupt cult-like authoritarianism, to say nothing of the intra-left debate over his policies. Understandably, this has spilled into representations of Nkrumah in movies. As explored in Perished Diamonds, Anita Afonu’s chronicle of Ghanaian cinema, much of the footage shot as part of Ghana’s burgeoning film industry was burned or left to ruin by the coup regime. Nkrumah sought to transform colonial-era cinema, which operated as a measure of control, into a medium both educational and entertaining that could help build national self-determination. The story of Ghana’s early years of independence mainly exists as a fragmentary, contradictory mosaic scattered over decades of celluloid memoria.
One example is French ethnographer Jean Rouch’s Jaguar, in which footage of Nkrumah prompts one of the actor/narrators to joke that “[he’s] the one wearing a loincloth. He has a big neck, he is well-fed for sure, he is fat. And all his ministers are fat too.” Rouch, already problematic for a variety of reasons, claims plausible deniability — that in collaborating with his actors to provide commentary, he’s subverting the colonial gaze. Except what material is available plays directly into the Western post-coup narrative. Rouch apparently restrained himself from documenting Nkrumah’s late exile in Guinea, but at least there Nkrumah might have been able to speak for himself.
A more recent example is the episode “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,” from Season 2 of The Crown, in which Nkrumah’s commitment to steering Ghana’s independence on a socialist path is window dressing for Queen Elizabeth II’s anxiety about her social life. A slight from Jackie Kennedy about her drab existence propels the Queen to seek a self-esteem boost, so she tries to bring Nkrumah back into the colonial fold after he’s already fallen into the Soviet orbit. His decision to turn to the USSR is depicted as an opportunistic act of financial anxiety, entirely resting on securing funds for the Volta Dam, as opposed to Nkrumah’s more complicated and strategically deft, if divisive, method of negotiating independence along a socialist, Pan-Africanist route. Like many British accounts of the time, the episode is mostly a fabrication.
The Volta Dam is also the subject of “Black Power,” the fifth episode of Adam Curtis’s Pandora’s Box, a documentary series on the dangers of “technocratic rationalism.” The dam serves as an overly pat symbol through which to analyze Nkrumah’s fall. In Curtis’s view, Nkrumah was an idealist who believed in science-based modernization (as if he merely wanted to turn Ghana into Wakanda) but was corrupted by international finance, to the detriment of his increasingly disillusioned believers. It seems an aversion to any Marxist analysis has left Curtis without the tools necessary to understand what Nkrumah meant by “scientific socialism” — building a socialist state while adapting to the specific material conditions formed by colonial underdevelopment. The only mention of socialism is halfway through the episode, when Curtis differentiates Nkrumah’s “African socialism” from the USSR, painting him a pawn in a Cold War he didn’t want to fight. In reality, though non-aligned while building the Organization for African Unity, he was still very clear about its solidarity with communist states.
On the upside, Curtis has John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of State openly admit that foreign aid for the dam was a tool of control, and whistleblower John Stockwell speaks about the CIA’s involvement in the Ghana coup. (US ambassador William Mahoney also makes a sympathetic appearance — his treachery in manipulating aid to Ghana to create the appearance of Nkrumah’s failure was only declassified some years after the series’ release.) Stockwell’s 1978 revelation is one of the reasons that Nkrumah’s lucid analysis of foreign subversion in his memoir Dark Days in Ghana, initially dismissed as paranoid deflection of any criticism, has been increasingly validated. Curtis at least acknowledges the West’s role in perpetuating a false narrative partly constructed by the CIA, its lackeys in the Ghanaian army, and various defectors. But excluding Nkrumah’s own vast literature on the subject doesn’t do much to counter that narrative.
More well-rounded is Shirikiana Aina’s 2018 documentary Footprints of Pan-Africanism, which looks at attempts by the African diaspora to transform the traumatic legacy of slavery by working with Nkrumah’s government toward a Pan-African future. Luminaries like Maya Angelou and W.E.B. DuBois went to Ghana to help run universities, theaters, newspapers, and general cultural affairs. Activists like Malcolm X visited to set up the African American component of the Organization of African Unity. Some interviewees are veterans of US wars who faced apartheid back home and found their skillsets more appreciated when participating in Ghana’s modernization. Aina leaves criticism of Nkrumah to one line from poet and diplomat Kofi Awoonor, about how the collective effort to build a nation was occasionally haphazard, but understandably, so given postcolonial constraints. Of more importance is how Ghana served as a base for surrounding liberation movements, which also connects that project’s tragic fate to the string of assassinations and coups that befell those movements, from Lumumba to Malcolm to Cabral.
“It sounds like fireworks,” recalls one interviewee of the coup. “We haven’t recovered from that yet.” John Akomfrah’s Testament (1988) operates in that barely scabbed wound. Akomfrah emigrated to the UK at age four, when his parents fled the violent, deadly persecution of Nkrumahists. The film follows the dead ends and internal monologues of expat reporter Abena (Tania Rogers), who returns to Ghana two decades after the coup, only to find vows of silence from former comrades and fragments emerging from the subconscious of the violence that befell them in 1966. Abena occasionally crosses paths with traditional singers. One group asks, “What pact did you make with foreigners that they now control our lives?” Through footage of Marx and Lenin books being burnt, he gives context to the systematic eradication not just of Nkrumah’s ideological contributions to Marxism, but also to communism in general as a possible liberating alternative for Ghanaians. Testament was originally subtitled Warzones of Memory, as Akomfrah considered himself a “combatant in this field … in which the question of memory is a product of contestation.”
The line “practice without thought is blind; thought without practice is empty” from Nkrumah’s Consciencism makes an appearance in Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance, about a Black socialist co-op in West Philadelphia. The co-op rediscovers the theoretical contributions of African Marxists like Julius Nyerere and Thomas Sankara, while also preserving the memory of the MOVE bombing against the systematic eradication of Black self-determination. In this collective action of piecing together sidelined history while attempting to create a new one, the film captures one important method of applying thought to practice.
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Author: Adam Katzman