ITV's 'The Widow': An African Heart of Darkness?

Last Tuesday, ‘The Widow’, an eight-part drama shown on ITV, finished with a half-hearted, limp whimper, after eight hours of death, mystery, cryptic clues and adventure across the heart of Africa. The story follows Georgia (Kate Beckinsale), a brooding and slightly irritating heroine with an annoyingly perfect ponytail that remains flawless even when she’s in the middle of the Congolese jungle. After catching a glimpse of her husband’s iconic orange baseball cap on a news report, she believes that he must still be alive, despite the fact that he was presumed dead after a plane crash over the DRC three years previously. What follows is a dramatic adventure which sees Georgia traipse across Central Africa, lying, killing, misleading and causing general havoc on the search for her missing husband. Without giving away spoilers, the ending was somewhat boring and a rather pathetic conclusion to what we were led to believe what be an action-packed finale.

Nevertheless, The Widow is most interesting for its portrayal and perceptions of Africa, and the DRC, one of the poorest, most poverty-stricken and war-torn nations on earth. Traditional representations of Africa, which began with colonial representations but have continued through the perpetuation of humanitarian, human rights, geopolitical and media or popular culture discourses, portray Africa (generalizing an extremely diverse continent) as having a ‘heart of darkness’. Based on racialised and infantilising stereotypes, Africa, and by extension Africans, are portrayed as savage, barbaric and unable of helping themselves and therefore in desperate need of Western intervention. The white saviour narrative, by extension, posits that as Africans cannot help themselves, white saviours must assist in their political, economic, social and cultural development. Colonialists began this tradition, embarking on a ‘civilising mission’ to bring their colonies in line with western, ‘enlightened’ norms of political and social etiquette and behaviour. This narrative has been further perpetuated through humanitarian and human rights discourses. According to Teju Cole, this narrative has become an ‘industrial complex’, in that individuals from Europe and the US now believe that they can go to Africa and become a hero, under the premise of ‘making a difference’ through charity, missionary or development work. This post-humanitarianism premise empowers western youth and focuses on the ‘feel-good factor’ and western agency in order to ‘save’ Africa. This is inherently damaging, as it removes any agency from African people themselves, serves as a form of ‘othering’ between ‘them’ and ‘us’, and becomes a form of neo-colonialism, therefore strengthening unequal power structures between the industrialised, developed ‘core’ (the West) and the savage, undeveloped ‘periphery’ (everyone else). So, to what extent does ‘The Widow’ perpetuate or challenge these discourses and stereotypes?

Firstly, when one thinks of Africa, the image that probably comes to mind is startling poverty, crime, and war. In some ways, ‘The Widow’ challenges this and provides one of the most accurate portrayals of Africa I have seen on screen. I struggled in many instances to decide whether the depictions of African cities and villages we were presented with on screen did carry this ‘othering’ or ‘western’ gaze or were simply realistic. For much of the series, it is fortunately the latter. Yes, we see poverty. But we also see prosperity; bustling metropolises, busy markets, technology, and enterprise. Yes, there is horrific violence as Georgia becomes caught up with militia groups, corrupt generals and the politics of coltan mining, but this is unfortunately the reality of the DRC, no matter how shocking this may appear to some audiences. But there is also humility, compassion, and friendship. Seeing this violence played neither up nor down but portrayed matter of factly was somewhat refreshing in a landscape so often depicted so savagely, through racialised or civilising lenses. Nevertheless, while Africans themselves are given a significant degree of agency, resilience, and a starring role in ways we don’t often see, they were on the whole either secondary to the white, western characters. For example, while Immanuel, Georgia’s friend who lost his wife in the flight, is portrayed as strong, kind, knowledgeable and enterprising, his role is as a side-kick and helper. The whole coltan mine operation, which comprises a major backbone to the storyline, is overseen by a white South African and a white, British, female aid worker. The Africans’ are either evil, corrupted generals who kill to get what they want or impoverished mine workers or armed rebels. Therefore, whilst the show does go some way to provide more accurate representations of Africa and Africans on screen, the contrast with the white characters and their role and agency does somewhat perpetuate the standard narrative.

Secondly, ‘The Widow’ is interesting in its portrayal of child soldiers, conceptualised in the character of Adija, an eleven-year-old girl who was abducted from her village and forced to carry a gun and kill. It is an interesting decision to include the issue of child soldiers, which became an international political and humanitarian crisis in the 1990s concurrent with emerging discourses of human rights, child rights and globalization, and the explosion of international humanitarian law and legislature. Despite being increasingly portrayed in popular culture and films, including Netflix’s ‘Beast of No Nation’, it is fascinating to see child soldiers represented on such a popular TV channel at prime time. Adija, at first, seems to challenge the stereotype of child soldiers, and of girl soldiers in particular, of being passive, brutalised victims who cannot be deemed responsible for their actions, and instead seems to show strength, resilience, and agency. Nevertheless, Georgia takes pity on her – ‘but she’s just a little girl’ – especially given the death of her own baby girl at a few months old, and rescues her from the bush and adopts her as her own. While it is an interesting and positive development that the producers decided to include such a politically charged, contentious and discursively important topic such as child soldiers on mainstream TV, the narrative is still one of western agency and African helplessness which pervades western constructions of childhood innocence and passivity.

Georgia’s saving of Adija is symbolic of the ultimate end-point for the plot; Georgia must also intervene to ‘save’ and ‘help’ Africa in order to make herself better. Ultimately, despite what I believe are genuinely good intentions, ‘The Widow’ descends into stereotypical cultural tropes, popular expectations and cliched narratives about Africa and the white saviour narrative. The DRC, its people and its inherent problems are simply a backdrop for Georgia’s ego to be cast against, and the narrative predominantly follows her adventures and issues, as a white, middle-class woman looking for her white, middle-class husband. Not being content with having found of the truth for herself, Georgia must then ‘make a difference’ by exposing the truth about the plane crash that she has discovered and getting justice for the families of the victims, before leaving again, suggesting that Africans themselves would not have been able to get to the bottom of the mystery without her help. This is not necessarily the fault of the producers, but the fault of simplistic narratives which are so ingrained in public consciousness and understanding that they are difficult to avoid or challenge.

Ultimately, despite being one of the most nuanced, multi-faceted, and varied portrayals of Africa to have graced prime-time television in recent years, ‘The Widow’ still suffers from an over-reliance on the generalised, ingrained and damaging narratives that have pervaded depictions of Africa dating back to colonial times; of Africa as a place in need of western agency and saving, unable to help itself, and doomed to being backwards, under-developed and war-riddled.