'Black Earth Rising': TV Review

A smart historical mystery.

Ambitious and twisty, the latest miniseries from British writer Hugo Blick requires patience but is massively thrilling.

With his sprawling, twisting and ultra-ambitious eight-part miniseries Black Earth Rising, writer Hugo Blick confirms what was already apparent to those who watched his last epic story, 2014's The Honourable Woman, or 2011's crime drama The Shadow Line. And it's this: Blick has few equals when it comes to taking on extraordinarily complex topics, and even fewer who can match his overall excellence in the finished product.

It's Blick's passion, apparently, to tackle seemingly impossible stories — ones with challenging plots, enormous emotional stakes and complex ethical ambiguities — and work them out in eight hours or less. There was the moral uncertainty of cops and killers in the Wire-like Shadow Line and the audacious spy thriller The Honourable Woman — which brilliantly tackled Israel-Palestine tensions and their tentacle-like reach beyond the Middle East.

Now, in Black Earth Rising, Blick spotlights the Rwandan genocide (the civil war episode in which an estimated 1 million members of the Tutsi minority were slaughtered by the Hutu majority, often by machete, over a 100-day period in 1994) as well as international war criminals and how the white West believes it knows best how to handle/help black Africa.

Approaching the heavy subject matter differently than in past projects, he makes creative choices that are sometimes counterintuitive. This includes the inspired casting of Michaela Coel, the British actress best known for comedy (Chewing Gum), placing John Goodman in a key role, and weaving animation into certain scenes.

Miraculously, or madly, it all works. Coela is fantastic in a difficult role, Goodman is perhaps better than he's been in years (a high bar), and the use of animation works in an unexpectedly subtle way. The rest of the excellent cast (including Blick in a small role) delivers too. And, while the complicated story darts around and confounds, brushing up against twists that might challenge believability, Blick's track record of extricating himself like a magician needs to be trusted, because he has a history of rewarding, well-earned payoffs.

Blick's impressive television resume, in fact, revolves around series that have many more track-back twists than the audience is expecting — he's become an expert at dragging viewers through a knotty thicket of plotlines only to show them, once they are in the clear and believe they've got it sorted out, that the story isn't even halfway told.

Knowing that going in might be tremendously helpful for Black Earth Rising, which first introduces Kate Ashby (Coel), a genocide survivor adopted by a white barrister, Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter), who was working in humanitarian aid in Rwanda and later helped bring important figures involved in the genocide to justice. Kate is a legal administrator doing research that's tantamount to undercover work for Eve and the American-born prosecutor Michael Ennis (Goodman). Eve and Michael are working on much bigger and more complicated cases than Kate knows about, and she begins to sense there's more than a whiff of white moral (and British legal) superiority to it all, a theme that Blick introduces in the opening minutes of the show and which underlies the entire series. 

Why is it that the mostly white West believes it knows best (and can act best) in the affairs of mostly black Africa? The vast majority of criminal indictments by the International Criminal Court, in The Hague, have focused on Africa and against black Africans, a skewed number that intrigued Blick when he was doing research for the series. But Black Earth Rising wisely uses that as one of many gray undertones rather than an anvil as it explores the actions of its characters. Racism, nationalism, European white moral imperatives and paternalism all mix with politics, greed and murky motives from everyone involved. As with all Blick's dramatic offerings, part of the underlying motivation is to keep viewers wondering about perception and the hidden biases that color it.

But at the center of Black Earth Rising is Kate's search for identity as she tries to overcome her broken life (she suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder) while working with her mother and Michael to bring fugitive war criminals to justice.

That's more complicated than it seems, particularly if secrets are being kept from Kate. There's an ominous tone throughout Black Earth Rising, but there's also a key dramatic conceit: Eve and Michael have a mysterious past with Alice Munezero (Noma Dumezweni), a popular Rwandan civilian administrator hailed as a hero in her homeland because she led a Tutsi military unit that helped take back the country; and Eunice Clayton (Tamara Tunie), an American who works at the U.S. State Department as assistant secretary of the Bureau of African Affairs and who previously worked for a nongovernment organization in Rwanda. These four are tied together, but how exactly is the deeper mystery.

All four of them are also connected to David Runihura (Lucian Msamati). David goes way back with seemingly everyone who set foot in Rwanda. He's the special adviser to the president of Rwanda, Bibi Mundanzi (Abena Ayivor) — a peripheral character until about the halfway point.

Blick specializes in deep secrets, the kind people take to the grave, and what it might mean if those secrets are unearthed. So it's fair to assume that something  is still in play from the aftermath of the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, when all these players were younger and striving for complicated justice and a country's rebirth. Blick's storytelling style can sometimes seem maddening — there are key elements just out of your view, and until they come into focus, the viewer will be drowning in confusion. But patience is always rewarded.

Figuring out what has happened in a Blick story is one thing, but the result is rarely a sense of clean, uncomplicated validation once you do. Morality and justice are never black-and-white, and characters and their motives are perpetually questioned. Does that lessen the reward for the viewer? It shouldn't, because it's a more realistic reflection of life, one that definitely keeps you thinking. Like David Simon, Blick is the kind of storyteller who's drawn to a form of bleak realism because that's where the tough stories that need to be told reside. In that sense, his work requires something of a commitment from viewers, but Black Earth Rising and Blick's previous work illustrate that it's one worth making. 

Created, written, directed and produced by Hugo Blick

Cast: Michaela Coel, John Goodman, Harriet Walter, Noma Dumezweni, Tamara Tunie, Abena Ayivor, Lucian Msamati, Danny Sapani, Emmanuel Imani, Tyrone Huggins, Timothy Walker, Hugo Blick

Premieres Friday, Jan. 25 (Netflix)