TV’s Role in Communicative Peacebuilding: Hugo Blick’s Netflix/BBC Production, Black Earth Rising (Contains spoilers)


By Tom Butt, JNL61004, MA International Public and Political Communication, University of Sheffield (UK).

The TV drama Black Earth Rising (BER) portrays the effects of civil war on Rwandans to encourage peacebuilding in the present day. Set two decades after the Rwandan civil war and directed by Hugo Blick, BER stars John Goodman (Michael) and Michaela Coel (Kate) (Black Earth Rising, Netflix). BER deals with questions of whom should prosecute war criminals, and whether post-civil war societies have the capacity to do so whilst ensuring peace (BBC, 2018). By using the BBC and Netflix as a platform, Blick was motivated by contributing to a worldwide understanding of Rwandan trauma and peace. By highlighting the Rwandan civil war (1990-1994), provoked by colonial frameworks and ethnic divisions, and all its collateral cultural damage, Blick uses his storytelling medium to advance the pursuit of peace

To reach a peaceful society, there must be a commitment to this pursuit, with an acceptance that all, including former enemies, need healing (Pukallus, 2022). This is clear in a scene between Kate (believing she is Tutsi) and Patrice Ganimana, a Hutu perpetrator of genocide. Upon meeting, Kate calls a visibly emotional Patrice a ‘fucker’ (Episode Five, 53:02), whilst crying, combining her anger with a realisation he is a frail old man before he apologises. Kate asks: ‘what do you want?’ (54:34), with Patrice replying: ‘for you to see I’m not a monster’ (54:39). Patrice explains former enemies are just that, encapsulating the need for healing, stating: ‘nothing you could do to me, could be worse than what I already live with’ (56:15). Although Kate displays a lack of assent to civil peace by failing to acknowledge his trauma, this is immaterial – the audience understands that both sides need healing. This scene allows viewers to understand perpetrator trauma and assent to civil peace is upheld.

Routine behaviours and interactions build peace through an acceptance of others (Pukallus, 2022, pp. 27-29). Kate’s relationship with Florence demonstrates this substantive civility. After Florence reveals his Rwandan heritage, the two have dinner and Kate shares: ‘back home I’m special, here I’m just one Tutsi amongst millions’ (Episode 6, 35:30). Immediately, the conversation develops, and Florence reveals: ‘I’m Hutu’ (36:26). Kate reacts differently to this information than when dealing with Patrice, listening to Florence, restraining her emotion when telling him: ‘it wasn’t your fault’ (39:21). Kate (believing she is Tutsi), elevates Florence to equal standing, dealing with it in a civil conversation as substantive civility proposes (Pukallus, 2022, p. 29). The audience therefore sees Kate’s development as a Rwandan willing to engage with those she has been conditioned to hate. Social cognitive theory proposes that, in education-entertainment, ‘[behaviours] are encouraged or discouraged [through] transitional characters in a serial drama’ (Bilali, 2014, p. 388). Kate is that character, beginning the series unwilling to listen to non-Tutsis, unwilling to be civil, before evolving into a more understanding character. The depiction of behavioural transformation in Kate, therefore, promotes peaceful cooperation.

BER fails to address a need for an empowerment of citizens as political actors and informed voters in a peaceful society, preferring to focus on institutional peacebuilding whilst frequently referring to the capacity of Rwanda and its constitution meddling—there’s a sense that Rwanda is trying to prove civil competencies. One plot thread involves President Mundanzi and her advisor David seeking to use Kate to extradite Patrice to prove they are capable of prosecution. Kate meticulously tells Michael the workings of the Rwandan court and record-keeping (Episode Six, 40:25), emphasising the capabilities including a right to a fair trial, proper representation and the following of international court templates. Rwanda is depicted as providing safe spaces that will lead to justice. This greatly differs from transitional Gacaca courts, where victims had to testify in their community, with safety not guaranteed (Bilali, 2014, p. 391). Unfortunately, it is revealed that Rwanda cannot afford the legal staff required, but the presentation of these spaces shows movement towards building civil capacity and respect toward rights.

In peaceful societies, there must be a commitment to managing emotions, especially in enabling further discussion (Pukallus, 2022). Kate is central to a representation of emotional forbearance, seen interviewing colonial figures who provoked civil war, but remaining civil. Early in the series, she emotionally tells French colonial ex-minister Jacques Barré that she is a Tutsi, as he tells her ‘the truth is far more complex’ regarding French-Hutu relations (Episode Two, 47:27). In the next scene, Kate explains her anger to Michael, having stopped herself from hitting Jacques. Indeed, feelings of resentment from either side still exist (Paluck, 2009, p. 576). Her emotional forbearance improves later in the series, when conversing with Florence, showing visible restraint (Episode Six, 36:33). By the end of the series, Kate can deal with conflicting viewpoints, and can emotionally withstand realising she is Hutu. BER demonstrates that personal background is less important than emotional forbearance when building peace.

Key to peacebuilding, is perspective-taking, requiring active listening to each other (Pukallus, 2022). In one scene, Michael asks a Tutsi woman of her trauma, and the show sensitively deals with her inability to speak with an emotionally reverent hand-drawn sequence. The woman uses sign language to ask why Michael listens to her when she cannot speak, he replies ‘because words would fail’ (Episode Three, 24:10). Michael’s character shows that, by listening, we can externally understand trauma. The non-interruption, respect and dignity of Michael summarises perspective-taking and ‘dignity-as-respectfulness’ (Pukallus, 2022, p. 145). Regrettably, the scene lacks a Hutu perspective or interaction between Hutu and Tutsi to emphasise two-way active listening; notably, the perpetrator thesis demonstrates that shared guilt comes from war atrocities, and this scene could have been mirrored with Hutu perspective (McMullin, 2013, p. 405). Nonetheless, the importance of perspective taking is still clear here.

Achieving peace must be the priority of all without exclusion of views, so long as they are justifiable in relation to an objective of peace (Pukallus, 2022, pp. 149-151). BER struggles to uphold this principle, as multiple characters prevent peace; Michael, Alice and Eunice have their own political agenda in proving Rwanda cannot handle the prosecution of war criminals. Drama can provide valuable insight ‘in developing communities, highlighting normative behaviour and social relationships, pivotal to participatory peacebuilding’ (Aguiar, 2020, p. 54), by showing different roles of stakeholders within a society. So, despite the lack of upholding this principle, BER teaches many valuable lessons on how conflicting objectives can stifle the objective of peace. Rwanda’s struggle with its past implies that a peace objective will be best for Rwanda, emphasised especially at BER’s conclusion.

BER shows the complexities of both Hutu and Tutsi perspectives, and how they interact, but it is not always a balanced interpretation that sought to remove all barriers and blame in the pursuit of peace. The reveal that Kate is a Hutu could also have taken place earlier to provide more opportunities for perspective-taking. However, it is unrealistic to suggest that a drama can deal with every issue adequately without trivialising (Manley, 2019, p. 467). McGarty (2014, p. 379) explains that any fictional representation is heavily sanitised, and it is impossible to show every damaging act committed and without offence. For shows to remain engaging, plot and character development will often take centre-stage to provide subtle education-entertainment.

A good measure of the show’s contribution to peacebuilding can be assessed through Pukallus’ (2022) civil norms and principles. BER displays movement towards peace through the acceptance that all parties need healing, and a sympathetic tone towards the trauma of perpetrators. Civil behaviour is shown through various conversations between characters that would have been enemies and a building of civil capacity is shown, albeit primarily institutionally. Institutional peace-building includes communicative institutions like mass media (Pukallus, 2022): It would have been better if the show leaned more into the relationship with the media in Rwanda, especially due to radio’s role in the civil war and genocide, but this is ultimately a creative choice (Paluck, 2009, p. 574).

BER fails to project all possible peacebuilding elements, but this is probably due to the limitations of the medium: BER needs conflicting objectives and motivations to remain engaging and interesting. Additionally, the emotional forbearance was not always afforded, as emotional responses were often required to evoke empathetic tendencies from viewers. Unapologetically, the show is largely told from a Tutsi perspective and could have done more to represent Hutu guilt. There was missed opportunity to provide a real duality in representation of both Florence and Kate. Moreover, BER is a predominantly British production, and therefore loses the natural authenticity that a production based in Rwanda, produced by and starring Rwandans, would provide.

The show had an impact, with its IMDb page and international Netflix release, instant evidence of this, however, limitations come through the audience and screen boundary—there is a risk that complex issues become trivialised and the audience becomes less informed or increasingly annoyed with an inaccurate portrayal of the conflict they have experienced and can remember. Indeed, many Rwandans will put their own experience above fictional representations.

BER provides a complex example of peacebuilding through the arts. BER presents itself as an imperfect but reliable way to understand peacebuilding through the arts, and how the real challenges of creating an engaging drama, which educates viewers, can be successful. Immediately, viewers are made aware of the significance of the topic through Leonard Cohen’s singing, ‘a million candles burning for the help that never came’, a choice by Blick that sets the tone for the international avoidance in helping Rwanda to avoid catastrophic civil war until it was too late. BER was successful in pushing peaceful principles and encouraging peaceful cooperation through its characters and story. The safe discursive spaces provided for characters and sensitive issues paired with norms which peaceful societies take for granted, demonstrates the potential to inform and impact peacebuilding. Future TV productions should follow this example, improving upon its formula where possible.


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