Film Review: Ota Benga Director: Niyi Coker 60mins; USA
Documentary film plays an important role in recording some of the most atrocious incidents deeds of white or western inhumanity to black, and more specifically to the people of the African world. This particular documentary captures the incidents leading to the invasion of an African hamlet or village. It particularly reels the wicked acts meted on an innocent but; unlucky young African man leading to his capture, sojourn to the land of the white man, the dehumanization which he experiences and his eventual death. Made by African American studies Prof. Niyi Coker of the University of Missouri-St-Luis, Ota Benga shows the various indecencies of a clergyman Rev. Viener who is instructed to explore Africa by his own employers. Entering the village under the pretence of a religious mission, Viener eventually acts brutishly by abducting Ota Benga with brute force, and takes him to the white man’s land. Upon arriving in the U.S, Ota Benga is used as a specimen to be put on display of an exhibit, in a museum among the remains of dinosaurs and various animals. Ota Benga experiences great shock and immense psychological humiliation. He becomes an object of amusement before several white audiences who encounter a Black person from the African continent for the first time. This encounter was influenced by a racist colonial narrative, which classified races placing Black people at the bottom of the hierarchy. Ota Benga became a tool for the exhibitionist who puts him for auction. The treatment he received at the museum and by the spectators led to damaging physiological torture. This led to a movement of people who protested for his capturing, eventually resulting in his release. However, the psychological damage became a permanent part of his spirit…He then takes his own life to escape the psychological trauma. His name changed to Ota Bingo as inscribed on the tomb. The documentary has its strengths in that the content mixes exactly with the form, structure and techniques. Niyi Coker adopts a multimedia approach, and goes the extra mile by using facts curled from newspapers and magazines which recoded the sad ordeal of the subject. Original letters of, and from Rev Viener to his employers about his sojourn to Africa and vice versa, montage reels of 17th century America and the so called African primitive world, the cultural landscape of African civilization, cartoon illustrations of African rituals, festivals, and the various levels of invasion of Africa by white men holding guns across their shoulders, pictures of the Ota Benga himself as a happy young man. Niyi Coker also draws on real time interviews with scholars from various fields of study, and more interestingly a few relatives of Rev. Veiner, who Niyi Coker confessed were at first reluctant and hesitant to speak about the malodorous behaviours of Veiner. These interviews helped in gathering facts about the ridicule Ota Benga experienced. There were other dramatic strategies to the documentary as Niyi Coker employed the services of actors who could intone the accent of the characters that contributed to the miserable life of Ota Benga before his untimely death. These voices were so real and had life that could almost put one in a position as to be part of the entire occurrences and happenings within the period in question. This is what Brian Larkin refers to as the “Aesthetic of Outrage”, a situation which compels the member of audience to be directly involved in the story as it occurred in real time. In this kind of story there is a tragic side and because there exists a tragic side it will be cathartic. Niyi Coker illustrates a situation of the past to compel us to think about our own situation in the modern world, and how the African person is treated. Further, the film allows the audience to think about the cultural identity of the Black body as it crosses borders, but continues to be oppressed by the colonial structures that were historically created. The spectacle that is created out of Ota Benga in a cage shows viewers the way the history of colonialism, profit, racism and imperialism are all connected and have led to the historic and continued dehumanization of the Black body. Tunde Onikoyi & Nayo Sasaki-Picou IREP Media Team.