At the age of 13, I “experienced Africa” for the first time through The Gods Must be Crazy. After my parents took us to this “educational” film, I read everything available on the Bushmen. I had no concept of fetishizing the exotic, white constructions of an uncivilized Africa, or colonial discourse. I was only curious to learn about this unknown other.
When I was 16, I returned to the theaters for a second “lesson,” with the release of The Gods Must be Crazy II. I joined thousands of other Americans laughing at our savage brethren. I still loved Xi (N!xau), the only returning character, his clicking language, and the comedy provided by his bumbling.
At 21, I began reading film critically. I read articles by Ella Shohat, Vincent Rocchio, and bell hooks that deconstructed Gods’ racism and ideological, historical, cultural and aesthetic connections to Birth of a Nation and other projects of U.S. (white) global hegemony. Now 30, I’m again troubled by The Gods Must be Crazy, now available on DVD.
The Gods Must be Crazy I & II follow a long Hollywood tradition, imagining Africa as a far away fantasy. Set in the Kalahari Desert, home of the Bushmen, the first film presents a confrontation between primitive culture and modern exploitation. A Coke bottle drops from the sky, sending the Bushmen community into a state of uncertainty. Xi, determined to thwart the encroaching development the bottle betokens, embarks on a journey to take the gift “back to God.” This leads to a series of “comedic episodes” demonstrating the noble savagery of the Bushman and the threat Western civilization poses to their tribal society. Gods chronicles the difficulty of modernization for the Bushmen, naturalizing white dominance and colonial relationships.
The Gods Must be Crazy II, while never earning the same praise, excoriation, or box office success as the original, replicates its plot, again following Xi, who once again battles invasion by the other. This time, Xi is forced to search for his two children, kidnapped by two ivory poachers. As he searches, the plot goes in multiple directions, usually comic.
Both The Gods Must be Crazy I & II employ a series of rhetorical strategies to convince viewers of their “truthfulness.” The narrator sounds as if he’s lifted from a 1920s Anthropology film. As he intones over repetitive images of native buffoonery, he suggests to young viewers, anyway, that the films are “authentic” glimpses into the culture and experience of the Bushmen.
As The Gods Must be Crazy I & II reinscribe colonial fantasies, the extras on the DVD explore some of these problems. While not entirely self-critical, the documentary Journey to Nyae Nyae considers the films’ consumption in the West, as they made N!xau a star and raised anthropological interest in the Bushmen.
The documentary critiques the eco-tourists who flocked to Africa following the first film’s release in hopes of meeting N!xau or otherwise sampling his alien life. Once the most famous African actor in the world, N!xau signifies the tragic colonial circumstances surrounding the production of the films, having profited very little from his “acting career.” The documentary shows him in a tattered shirt, thin from a long battle with tuberculosis. Rather than probe this particular history, the documentary focuses on Western generosity. Like the Gods movies, it shows how Westerners have constructed school houses, introduced new technology (solar panels), and taught English to numerous school children.
The DVD makes several arguments to help viewers understand the Gods Must be Crazy project: (1) The films brought attention to dire conditions of the Kalahari, inspiring help from outside. (2) The aversion to technology that led the Bushmen to fear a Coke bottle is past; now, they yearn for technology. But in these arguments, the documentary represents the third installment of the Gods trilogy. Following the first two films’ emphasis on the Bushmen’s incompetence and lovable savagery, the DVD extras only expand the portrayal, while making the Westerners look good.
But while watching The Gods Must be Crazy I & II took me back to my childhood, the ability to reconnect with a film with an alternative gaze is a productive experience. As the DVD set includes both films, the documentary, and a host of other extras (web-links to Kalahari information sites; photo galleries, and a second featurette), it provides an opportunity to examine 1980s cinematic colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, from another angle.