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Review: Netflix's 'Black Earth Rising' Stars British Actress Michaela Coel

Jan 25, 2019
Originally published on January 25, 2019 7:31 am
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"Black Earth Rising" is a fictional thriller about the modern repercussions of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. It debuts on Netflix today, but it was a co-production with BBC Two and aired on British TV last year. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the series offers a compelling look at an atrocity many Americans may never have fully understood.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: If you know British actress Michaela Coel mostly for her charming, off-the-wall performance in the sitcom "Chewing Gum," you're in for a jarring, impressive surprise. Coel has transformed herself from an awkward, wisecracking comic into a hardened, damaged trauma survivor for "Black Earth Rising." She plays Kate Ashby, a black woman rescued from an orphanage in Rwanda as a child after her family was killed. She was raised to adulthood in London by a white woman. Kate still carries the scars from her childhood, emotionally and physically, as she reminds her adoptive mother Eve during an argument.

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MICHAELA COEL: (As Kate Ashby) This is what they did to me. I don't remember my family or my country - nothing. I don't know my own name. The only thing I know is that it happened to nearly a million people, and I will never forget it. And neither should anyone else.

DEGGANS: "Black Earth Rising" sets this drama before a complicated backdrop - the consequences of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where up to 1 million members of the Tutsi community were killed by Hutu extremists. Kate's angry because her mother Eve is a respected prosecutor about to try an African general for war crimes in international court. But the general's not a member of the Hutu militias who committed the genocide in Rwanda. He was part of the force that stopped the killing but committed war crimes afterwards.

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COEL: (As Kate Ashby) I mean, to me, what you're doing - it's like the Second World War is over, and we're Jewish. And suddenly, you've decided to prosecute General Eisenhower because he tried to stop Hitler.

HARRIET WALTER: (As Eve Ashby) Well, if Eisenhower had committed war crimes, he would've been prosecuted.

COEL: (As Kate Ashby) Yes, but not by you - not you, my mother - because for me, it's like the SS is still out there. And all you're trying to do is prosecute one of the few men who tried to stop them.

DEGGANS: Writer-director Hugo Blick gives some characters illnesses that also seem like physical expressions of their guilt and trauma. One key character has seizures. Kate grapples with mental issues. And "Roseanne" alum John Goodman plays Eve's boss, a lawyer struggling with prostate cancer. He's also a confidante of Eve's, helping her keep a secret from her daughter.

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JOHN GOODMAN: (As Michael Ennis) You rescued a child, and you gave her a life.

WALTER: (As Eve Ashby) But not her past.

GOODMAN: (As Michael Ennis) And you're about to do that, too.

WALTER: (As Eve Ashby) Well, what if I was right in the first place, and what if she's still not ready?

DEGGANS: That's a question asked many times about Kate and the people of Rwanda. Can they handle the truth? Blick does a masterful job of unwinding a complex plot that touches on the arrogance of European nations imposing their justice on Africans and the brutal nature of political arrangements that are often made to keep the peace while enriching those in power. Just when you think you're seeing one type of story, Blick changes the narrative often by killing a key character unexpectedly. He does have some odd obsessions as a director, including a love for showing close-ups of doorknobs and a habit of showing characters regurgitating. It's a tough story, but it's also a thrilling, entertaining show with a unique storytelling style. "Black Earth Rising" is a political thriller, social issues drama and legal yarn all at once, centered on a world-shaking calamity which should be in every student's history book but too often isn't. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.