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Race and Identity in Colonial and Early Hollywood Cinema: Portrayals of African Realities in the Film Shaka Zulu

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Race and identity in colonial and early Hollywood Cinema:

In addition to the location and social environments in which African films are set, each character’s actions, beliefs, relationships and attitudes help construct the overall reality represented in each film. The reality that is derived from film creates a narrative context through which critics and audiences perceive African cultures and ideas about African identities. I would be presenting a critical analysis of how nineteenth century perceptions or ideas about “race” helped in contributing to colonial and early Hollywood cinema in relation to the preparation of contemporary filmmakers’ observations of post-colonial African identities and realities. An analysis of African identities will be made to focus on filmmakers’ portrayals of African realities in the film Shaka Zulu.

This paper will be observing the filmmakers representation of African identities and for this observation we would be looking at legitimacy and authenticity acquired from within the represented reality of the film. Shaka Zulu represents the overreaching, uni-dimensional African identities defined by one set of tradition, language and one ethnicity. Filmmakers however, problematize the representations of African identities based on the interpretation and applications of the concept of “race”. Filmmakers present the topic of African identity and explore historical insights of “race” and forms o “racism” which exist in contemporary African communities. Analyzing Shaka Zulu will provide an insight into the African identities that are observed by filmmakers.

Before proceeding further with how African identity is represented in Shaka Zulu, I would like to discuss first “black” and “white” identities. One needs to first understand these definitions before we indulge in a well-informed analysis of African identities and realities represented in films.

Race discourse in nineteenth century

Discovering the historic applications of the term “race” and the social implications of “racial” discourse in European and African communities helps understand a filmmakers idea of African identity in a film. Race was not most certainly a European invention (Banton 1983: 4) as witnessed by the pervasive use of the concept American colonial history (Allen 1994: 23-24). This paper will however focus on the European constructions of race in the nineteenth century. During this period of time other countries such as Belgium, France, Germany, Gr1eat Britain, Italy, Portugal and Spain (Roberts 1985: 302; Pfaff 2004: 51; Meredith 2005: 1-5) began to colonize Africa for “ prestige, Strategy and resource” ( 1986: 297) based on a sense of “racial” superiority promoted by popular “racial” discourses. In the 1970s, Britain became “the leading slave-trading nation in the world, the foremost “slave carrier’ for other Europeans and became the centre of the triangular trade” between Europe, West Africa and the Caribbean (Hiro 1973: x: Ukadike 1994: 29).

Several theories about humanity that it is divided into a limited number of distinct “races” or “species” based on biological physical differences originated in the Enlightenment era in the early nineteenth century (Jones 1997: 40-41; Thackway 2003:17) at the same point of time the slave trade and colonization of African continent were unfolding. Typologists claim that humanity could be divided into “types” or “species” categories which were defined based on assumptions of permanent differences included in physical appearance (Banton 1983: 44-45). Examples of physical differences included skin, colour, facial type, cranial profile and size, texture and colour of hair (Stocking 1968: 56). These differences were measured in relation to an ultimate “physical idea, to which the greater number of the individuals in the group more or less approach, but is better in some than in others” (1968: 58). According to typology theory, mental and cultural differences could be perceived as a direct reflection of a person’s “racially” determined physical structure Biddiss 1979: 12; Odum 1967: 7; Stocking 1968: 56) This theory also suggests that different “races” innately feel animosity or a sense of rivalry toward one another.

In the year 1859 Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in which he prosed a theory of natural selection. Darwin’s theories did not end the development of the term “race” but further engaged with its meaning as a reference to “sub-species” and “varieties” instead of primordial “types” or “species” identified by typology theorists. Darwin used the term “race” to refer to “domestic races as the outcome of human breeding” (Banton 1983:46). With his theory based on natural selection, typologists proposed that there were permanent physical characteristics or forms in human nature that could be traced back to one, primordial “race” (Banton 1983: 46). Influenced by the interpretations of Darwin’s writings, especially the us of “race” in the sub-title of The Origin of Species “English writers employed the term ‘race’ frequently when elaborating their philosophies of history, for it was believed that the growing economic and political strength of the European powers rose from qualities inherent in the white race, or races and that these promised European supremacy” (Banton 1983: 51). The negative image of non-Europeans “races” and the inherent superiority of Europeans was thus established based on rigid hierarchical methods of classification, which typologists and doctrines reinforced: ““In turn-of-the-century evolutionary thinking savagery, dark skin, and a small brain and incoherent mind were, for many, all part of the single evolutionary picture of ‘primitive’ man” (Stocking 1968: 132).

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“White” and “Black” Identities :

By the end of the nineteenth century, a three stage model of “race” was established on cultural and social categories instead of only biological and physical criteria. The three stages of cultural progress were identified as “savagery, Barbarism and civilization (Young 1995: 35) civilization placed at the top and “primitives” at the bottom (Young 1995:94). John Stuart Mill’s essay Civilization helped formalize “the trio not as general categories but as a hierarchy of the historical stages of man, bringing geography and history together in a generalized scheme of European superiority that identified civilization with race” (Young 1995: 35). On this hierarchical scale, the “white race”—European society—was equated with civilization and all non-white, non-Europeans at the lowest ranks of the ladder were linked to “primitives” (Young 1995: 94). In fact, Africans were placed “at the bottom of the human family, next to the ape, and there was some discussion as to whether the African should be categorized as belonging to the species of the ape or of the human” (Young 1995: 7).

Later during the medieval period as the West expanded its imperial domination, “a triple conflation of ‘White,’ ‘Europe’ and ‘Christian’ arose that imparted moral, cultural and territorial content to Whiteness” (Bonnett 1997: 175). This period witnessed the beginning of the usage of “White” as an “ethnic type” (Bonnett 1997: 175). Further adding to the three- stage model of “race” is James Cowle Prichard’S theory of “racial” difference , which is “the first people had been black and identified the cause of subsequent whiteness as civilization itself” (Young 1995: 35). According to Prichard, white skin was “both a marker of civilization and a product of it” (Young 1995:35). Hence, “people in Africa became black when they were conquered and defined by European people, who in the same move defined themselves as white” (Arnfred 2004: 18). According to Ania Loomba ,” black Africans were considered bestial both because of the medieval and religious associations of blackness with filth and dirt, and also because this provided a justification for colonizing and enslaving them” (Loomba 2005: 64). The method distinguishing was not only based on physical differences, but on what was not considered “ white”. In other words “Whiteness” was a term used in conceptual opposition to “Blackness” (Bonnett 1997:177), the defining expression of the ‘other’.

Race and Colonialism

When European colonization reached its peak on the African continent the development of Darwins “racial” theories emerged at the same time. Thus. “colonial conquest was firmly embedded in a racism that gave superhuman pre-eminence to white people “(Davis 1996:1). Colonization spread as a “byproduct of its real objectives of trade, economic exploitation and settlement” (Young 2001: 24) A significant aspect colonization was not only the transmutation of European cultural values, but most importantly, the restructuring of local economies. Which yielded all raw materials and markets to colonial powers (2001: 24). As a result, restructuring led to the decline of local economies. (Young 2001: 24). Though, the concepts of imperialism and colonialism are different, yet they are associated with each other or rather used a synonyms, because similar to colonialism, imperialism entailed conquest through political and economic subjugation (2006).

Hence, at Berlin conference of 1884-85, European countries officially divided the African continent “into colonies and spheres of influence” (Pfaff 2004: 64-65) based on a supposed moral “duty to civilize Africa” (Diawara 1992:1) validated by terms such as civilizing, Christianizing and enlightenment (Davis 1996: 1), and the motivation to economically exploit the continent. Ironically, at the Berlin Conference it was also decided that the practice of slavery and free-market imperialism would cease (Ukadike 1994: 29). In 1985, European empires dominated over three-quarters of the earth’s surface and were at the “apparent height of their power and influence” (Armes 1987:9). In the colonial history of Africa, the concept of “race” was always an issue because physical descriptions such as “black” and “white” were used as mechanisms not only to categorize people racially but to create social hierarchies for the sake of power subjugation, and colonial expansion (Berkeley 2001: 5-20; Scherrer 2002: 365; Ukadike 1994: 43). The term “whiteness” represented a narrow Eurocentric vision, which degraded and de-valued non-White identities:

“As we have seen, Whiteness has developed, over the past two hundred years, into a taken-for-granted experience structured upon a varying set of supremacist assumptions (sometimes cultural, sometimes biological, sometimes moral, sometimes all three). Non-White identities, by contrast, have been denied the privileges of normativity, and are marked within the West as marginal and inferior” (Bonnett 1997: 188).

Real or imaginary differences such as facial features and skin color based on “racial” categories helped the colonizers devalue African cultures and instill Eurocentric values: “So Africa was suffused with the language and racist ideology of the colonizer and it is not surprising then that racism ‘has historically been both an ally and product of the colonization process’” (Ukadike 1994;38). Hence, one of the problems of colonialism was that “all self-understanding and vale [were] based on race” (Hoogan 2000: 77). The concept of “race” was used to mark boundaries for otherness, a category which Europeans placed Africans. In order to define European identity, Africans were “classified according to the grid of Western thought and imagination, in which alterity [was] a negative category of the Same…The African [had] become not only the Other who [was] everyone else except me, but rather the key which, in its abnormal differences, specifies the identity of the Same” (Mudimbe 1988: 12). The view of Africa as a savage ‘other’ became the symbol of an inverted European civilization, “the European world expressed in upside-down fashion, a primitive version of Europe onto which a variety of European fantasies and fears were projected” (Ray 1976: 3). Thus, “one of the most striking contradictions about colonialism is that it needs both to ‘civilize’ its ‘others’ and to fix them into perpetual ‘otherness’” (Loomba 2005: 145).

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Race and Identity in Colonial and Early Hollywood Cinema: Portrayals of African Realities in the Film Shaka Zulu. (2022, July 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from
“Race and Identity in Colonial and Early Hollywood Cinema: Portrayals of African Realities in the Film Shaka Zulu.” Edubirdie, 14 Jul. 2022,
Race and Identity in Colonial and Early Hollywood Cinema: Portrayals of African Realities in the Film Shaka Zulu. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Sept. 2023].
Race and Identity in Colonial and Early Hollywood Cinema: Portrayals of African Realities in the Film Shaka Zulu [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jul 14 [cited 2023 Sept 24]. Available from:
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