Black Africa, White Marble
by Clemente Bicocchi, Director
2012, Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY
78 mins., color, in Italian with subtitles
Distributor’s website: www.icarusfilms.com
Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University
I know I missed a lot of important content while watching Black Africa, White Marble, for the tiny yellow English subtitles are often illegible upon dense patterns, white backgrounds or old sepia maps. Yet this Italian-language film still transmits a fascinating tale and valuable information about African history and its use by current rulers and stakeholders in Africa and in Europe.
Pietro Savorgnan di Brazza, born in the Italian Papal States in 1852, explored central Africa for his adopted homeland France from 1875 until his death in 1905. He established the Republic of the Congo as a French colony, and its capital city is named Brazzaville to this day. Brazza proposed in 1880 to King Makoko of the Batéké people that the local ruler place his kingdom under the protection of France. This gave Makoko trade advantages over his rivals, and France advantage over Portuguese, Belgian and other claims to the region. Brazza was Governor General of the French Congo from 1886 until 1897, when he was allegedly removed for not sufficiently exploiting the colony. In Black Africa, White Marble the story of Brazza's exploits are enhanced with puppetry, which isn't intrusive and provides attractive visuals where there exists no photographic or documentary imagery.
Brazza was an avowed critic of the atrocities and abuses by his successor as Governor General, and the report he submitted to the French parliament was never published. Filmmaker Clemente Bicocchi thinks its details called into question the entire European colonialist project. Upon his death, Brazza was first buried in Paris, but his widow wished his remains be interred in Algiers. Sassou Nguesso, current ruler of what is now the Republic of the Congo, wanted to enshrine them in a white Italian marble memorial in his capital city that cost $10 million to build.
With a Congolese journalist acting as intermediary, discussions and plans for the ceremonial dedication came to involve Brazza's descendants. One elderly descendant showed up to meetings in the Arab-style robes Brazza wore on his travels. Yet one of the family, feisty Idanna Pucci, is horrified by the splendor being dedicated to a dead man when there is so much poverty in the Republic of the Congo today. And she wants the ceremonies to include greater involvement with dignified King Makoko, descendant of the King who dealt with Brazza. This spiritual leader of the Batéké people still has influence in his region and is seen by the ruler in Brazzaville as irrelevant or a thorn in the side to Nguesso's authority. Bicocchi implies that the government might have had something to do with this Makoko's conveniently-timed death.
The presidents of France and Gabon joined Nguesso at the Brazza monument's dedication, amongst soldiers in elegant, gold-braided ceremonial uniforms. To President Nguesso, Brazza's activist descendant Ms. Pucci must have appeared as another European trying to meddle in African affairs, complicating his commemoration of a European that he, and presumably his nation, remembers with some fondness and respect. Yet a contemporary Congolese academic's critique of Brazza's exploitation of individual African women, based on handed-down oral tradition and circulating at the time of the memorial's construction, is not discussed. Or, it isn't legible in the subtitles if it is. The 78-minute Black Africa, White Marble tells a good story and would provoke discussion in a university class in African history, despite the poor subtitling.