I recently finished watching the first series of Tom Hardy’s new series ‘Taboo’ aired in the UK and the US. My initial impression on reading the series’ synopsis was that it would have been a movie primarily about slavery and empire building- even the logo had the manacles in the last two letters.
Unexpectedly and to my pleasant surprise, a key part of the storyline was the incorporation of African and indigenous spiritual concepts, and not the usual Hollywood stereotypes and negative sensationalism either.
In this narrative, it is actually familiarity with and knowledge of these spiritual systems that affords the main protagonist, James Delaney (played by Tom Hardy), the necessary skills to stay alive and succeed in furthering his objectives despite attempts by multinationals and nefarious governments to thwart them.
I think my surprise was mainly due to the rather tasteful and conversant use of the concepts in the story, reflecting that either such understanding was drawn from personal experience or some substantial research had been conducted to inform the film.
Some examples include the Delaney character’s ability to travel and effect reality via dreams, transcending time and space or his ability to commune with nature to get messages that inform future actions.
I was left somewhat in shock because a few years ago on the official website for Ofcom, Britain’s broadcasting regulator, there was a listed clause that stated that representations of such spiritual systems onscreen had to be such that they were not to seen as having any real ‘merit’. In other words, they were to be made to seem ‘hocus-pocus’, ‘superstitions without foundation’ etc- pretty much the colonial narrative.
Therefore in witnessing the manner in which it was largely portrayed in this film set me aback somewhat and interestingly, I cannot seem to find this clause anywhere on Ofcom’s website now…could it be times are changing?
Before we start jumping out our seats in excitement, an equally important reminder: the Delaney character is often referred to as the ‘African devil’, ‘savage’, even ‘n****r, for his knowledge and use of these systems, learnt from having a native American mother and time spent in Africa.
So the bashing of the cultural knowledge is still present, reflective of attitudes in those times and even still in this Modern day. In addition the protagonist is a very troubled individual with a history of cannibalism and incestuous and very brutal behaviours, which further support the ‘savage’ narrative I guess.
To describe in detail all the moments where the importance of the spiritual knowledge was emphasised in this article will result in a mini dissertation, one that will possibly hinder reading, so I will pick a few and those interested can take their reading further with this free book chapter download concerning African sacred concepts.
Facing imminent death for treason charges and asked to make a confession, the protagonist starts to recite some incantations in the Akan language (this I know as it’s my mother tongue, Hardy makes a good effort though, even though not always comprehensible), then we hear the sounds of birds in the background. He then proceeds to tell the ‘jury’ the next sequence of events about to happen that will result in his freedom and subsequently does.
When asked how he knows he will be freed, his response is ‘The ravens just told me’.
Then there is another scene where an assassin lies in wait for Delaney, but these plans are also thwarted as his horse alerts him of the presence of the assassin.
This commune with nature is not treated with the usual theatre of Hollywood but as rather as any adherent will experience either after a libation or offering given to our guides or ancestors. He uses ritual complete with various powders on his face and incantations to travel in dreams to visit his sister. The manner of representation of the importance, roles and functions is to be applauded too, as it treated without the ‘theatre of Hollywood’.
As earlier stated, there is an element of incestuous behaviour in the film which is not altogether clear as to its purpose and thankfully no connection is made between it and any sacred concepts. It is intimated that the illicit liaisons happen in childhood, way before his travels to Africa and initiation into any systems of knowledge.
When he recounts the story of how he was saved from a shipwreck by an African he makes a very, very important comment that often gets overlooked in discourses on the subject. He states that the African ‘revealed me to my true self’.
I would argue that the main (mis)understanding many not in the traditions have of it is, that it is merely a tool for ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes. You go to see a traditional priest, pay them some money and they then consequently perform some ‘magic’ and presto, your request is granted!
Whilst I am not arguing that such does not happen, because it does and for various reasons, it also misinforms that all the spirituality is about is gaining materialistic possessions often at the expense of others- cue the word ‘human sacrifice’.
What has largely been ignored in discourses about African Spirituality is the PURPOSE of the spiritual systems- which is, and has always been about providing the tools and insights for individuals to identify and fulfil their destiny/purpose on this earth. This is the role rites of passage assisted with in African communities once upon a time, but with colonialism and the indoctrination that Western culture is the only ‘worthy’ and ‘civilised’ one, most have been abandoned and are not really as rigorous or intense as once may have been.
This for me was possibly the most poignant moment in the film, but it lasts so briefly many may not even get the point and a shame that, but I guess the more discerning viewer will identify how throughout the film, it is spiritual knowledge that supports Delaney rather than the typical portrayal a la Hollywood as a ‘menace’ to be overcome.
It will be certainly unrealistic for me to assume that centuries of deliberate distortions and manipulation of understanding will disappear overnight, however this is a welcome break to witness.
Who knows? Perhaps the buzzword of ‘religious tolerance’ proliferated ubiquitously post 9-11, may yet become a reality in the not too distant future!
ASE (may it be so!)