Kwaw Ansah’s classic historical drama, Heritage Africa (1989) is a brilliant film that terrifies you as much as it entertains you. The 110-minute tragedy follows colonial officer, Quincy Arthur Bosomfield’s struggle to reconstruct his African identity, which he sold for the respect of the white man, and help free his country from the shackles of colonialism at the same time. Filled with powerful symbolism, unapologetic Ghanaian culture and graceful acting and directing, Heritage Africa is one of those films that leave a permanent stamp on any viewers mind. Thanks to the magic of the internet, it is available for free here!
Heritage Africa premiered close to nine years after his first film and smash hit, Love Brewed in an African Pot (1980), and was set in colonial Ghana (The Gold Coast) at the height of the struggle for independence from the British. The cast included an impressive mix of local and international actors such as David Dontoh, Ian Collier, Amina Misa and artist Kofi Bucknor in the lead role. Written, directed and scored by Kwaw Ansah, one of Ghana’s foremost filmmakers, the film makes use of various historically significant locations like Achimota School and the Usher Fort Prison while paying homage to Fanti culture and the Ghanaian independence struggle to probe the disintegration of the African identity; a by-product of colonialism. It also provides an exposition of religious practices and attitudes, public services such as health and education during the colonial era and the political culture.
The film is about 27 years old however; it is always feels fresh anytime I re-watch it primarily due to its high standards. Yet what makes it so memorable and reliving it a rich experience are the thematic issues. Although set in the late 1950s, they still resonate deeply with whichever audience that engages with this masterpiece of African cinema.
The struggle for independence is one of the major thematic threads woven into this film. We see a fictional account of the actions that made Ghana the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to govern itself, involving a young Kwame Akroma (Kwame Nkrumah) and his youthful liberation movement, going against the establishment of which the protagonist Quincy Arthur Bosomfield is a key player, being the highest ranked native officer in government; “one of us” as he is described. However, Bosomfield’s allegiances lie with his white master. He does not believe in the demands of his people for “self-government now”. He refuses to understand why anyone would want to disturb the colonial order from which he is a beneficiary . This is a huge source of tension between the major groups of characters in the story. The conflict bleeds into the other major conflict, which is his weak African identity because he has discarded his African heritage.
Kwaw Ansah designs this intricate plot to question the loyalties of the Africans to fellow Africans, mainly through his main character. Bosomfield is easy to love due to his charming personality but difficult to understand. A child of Fanti upbringing, he sheds this major module of his identity for everything European, very much like the characters in Kobina Sekyi’s play, the Blinkards. He whips his son mercilessly for observing a traditional festival and describes it as heathen. He also donates an ancient family totem to the colonial government in the hope of being knighted by the Queen of England. This highly symbolic gesture represents the African Heritage Kwaw Ansah is so concerned about. Our inability to recognize the value of cultural heritage should be a source of worry as identifying pride in these objects and traditions define who we are as a people. Indeed, the only way both conflicts in the film are resolved is by Bosomfield reclaiming his African heritage. This fight reawakens the character although it results in his tragic demise. It also prompts the conscience of the intended audience to fight and earn their African heritage.
The political and historical nature of the film does not make it drab and boring as the uncertainty of the faith of many characters and the backstabbing conspiracy creates amble suspense throughout the film. Together with the 1950s Ghanaian fashion and style available today only in iconic photographs of ace photographer James Barnor, the minimalist score and alternate images to picture Ghana’s independence struggle outside of archival footage, Heritage Africa reinforces its pole position in African cinema.
Elitism and African Heritage
The main character, Quincy Bosomfield, originally Kwesi Atta Bosomefi, represents the elite in Ghanaian society who fall in love with the colonial/European order and exorcise the Africaness. Having distinguished himself as an excellent scholar, Bosomfield chooses to serve the white man for his selfish agenda rather than his own people. His character represents the colonial policy of slowly bring the African into their own government, when the people they put there have forgotten that they are African. As the film shows, they were mere puppets and existed only to exult the greedy Europeans and their imperialist policies. The film also advocates for the appreciation and respect for African culture. Like Sembene’s masks in Black Girl, the symbol of the reclamation of Bosomfield’s family totem should be a clarion call to African to hold dear what is inherently their and protect it against exploitation.
I found terror in how Heritage Africa is accurate in predicting the future. Sixty years after the period in which the film was set has passed, one can see many more Kwesi Bosomefis transforming in Quincy Bosomfield at an increasingly alarming rate. Perhaps Kwaw Ansah’s ability to make us see the recurrence of these themes regarding our African heritage in the present time makes the film a classic? The fact that it is still relevant should make us question the fabric of our society? The film is a haunting reminder that history shows that history shows us nothing at all.
This giant of African cinema won the grand prize, Étalon de Yannenga at the 11th FESPACO (Panafrican Film and television Festival of Ouagadougou) in 1989 as well as Best Actor for Kofi Bucknor. Heritage Africa allowed Kwaw Ansah to continue exploring his interest in films and documentaries that celebrate his culture. His The Good Old Days series comprising The Love of AA, Papa Lasisi’s Good Bicycle and Suffering to Lose, relive childhood by confronting issues of parenting, ethnicity and education through a nostalgic screen. The film solidified a base for what should have been a prosperous cinema industry. However, the state of Ghanaian cinema today will require too many words and will be a cruel digression from this excellent work that should have been emulated. Heritage Africa was also re-released in 2007 in the United Kingdom.
African cinema is more than just slapstick comedy or Nollywood drama. Heritage Africa falls into a category, along with films like Sembene’s Emitai that ask the hard questions about our immediate history that most avoid. The genius screenwriting and directing should be celebrated but it is so hard to even find or remember some these films. Therefore, it will be irresponsible not to at least try to appreciate those that we have access to.
Written by Hakeem Adam
Image Credit: Stills from film.