The Best and Worst of African Conflict War Movies

The many conflicts, war, and rebellions that have occurred in Africa are sort of forgotten by most of the world.  Everyone knows Vietnam and World War II, but ask about a war that occurred in Africa and most people might simply be able to name the Sudan, without really knowing what the war was about.  Unfortunately, that means that a great many African conflicts such as the Rwandan genocide, Dafur, the war against apartheid in South Africa, or any number of civil wars are overlooked in place of films about white people using Africa merely as a setting.  Setting out to make a list involving the best and worst war films about conflict in Africa, I discovered that the list contains two types of films: Movies with white heroes using Africa as an exotic backdrop and documentaries about Africans committing horrible atrocities against one another in various civil wars.

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Zulu (1963)


The Best!

African Region:  South Africa

This 1963 Michael Caine film is more about the British Empire than Africa, the residents of which, in this film, are simply nameless barbaric hoarders coming to evict the British out of their small frontier outpost in South Africa.  With a force of thousands bearing down on them, the British, who only number a few hundred and have few defensive preparations, are forced to prepare for the oncoming onslaught, their anxiety growing as the clock ticks down.  And when the Zulu do finally arrive, their marching can be heard from miles away, so strong are their number.  The second half of the film is a massive battle where, surprisingly, the British end up surviving.  I would consider it a very unrealistic film except it's based on a true story.  One of the all time great "Final Stand" war films, where a small force is required to fight a much larger army.  For the foot soldiers in the British garrison force, it's a classic case of being forced to fight for a piece of land of little value for little other than the pride of British military officers.

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Africa: Blood and Guts


The Worst!

African Region:  All of Africa

There's precious few war films about Africa.  Unfortunately, one of the more famous ones is this 1966 Italian documentary which is nothing more than an exploitation film, showing the filmmakers transversing the African continent, visiting a perpetual stream of civil wars and genocidal conflicts.  There's little context or information about the conflicts, but there's lots of raw footage of real-life dead bodies.  This is a terribly difficult film to watch and made my list of all time most disturbing war films.

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The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Battle of Algiers.

The Best!

African Region:  Algeria

As with Zulu a few years earlier, this is another film about a Western European power (this time France) fighting to keep its grip on another colony, this time Algeria.  The Algerians want freedom, of course.  And the French, well, they want to keep exploiting profit and wealth.  This is a fairly famous war film in that it chronicles the quick escalation of violence and brutality on both sides, as each tries to up the ante, making the cost of continued conflict more difficult to bare.  What neither side considers though is the depths to which nations will endure violence once roused to battle.

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Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Hotel Rwanda.

The Best!

African Region: Rwanda

This 2004 film starring Don Cheadle follows a non-political hotelier during the genocide in Rwanda.  This man, who only wants to run a fine hotel and provide for his family, finds himself in the role of caring for refugees that he houses in the hotel.  To keep them, and his family alive, he's forced to lie, cheat, and steal - and make some unsavory deals with individuals he would prefer not to do business with.  The film provides an interesting protagonist, and as a viewer, you're heavily immersed in the safety of both his family and the refugees he's placed under his protection.  The tension rises throughout the film as the country starts to teeter, and then falls of the edge of sanity.  Nick Nolte has a supporting role as a UN officer in charge of an ineffective peace keeping force.  Based on a true story.

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Blackhawk Down (2001)

Blackhawk Down. Columbia Pictures

The Best!

African Region: Somalia

This famous combat film is about a company of Army Rangers, supported by Delta Force, that attempt to capture a high value target in Somalia.  Somalia is under the control of war lords, which is resulting in starvation for the people.  The attempted kidnap goes wrong and the Rangers - like the British in Zulu a hundred years earlier - are forced to fight their way out of an entire city that has turned against them. There's very little in the way of African politics here, and the Africans are fairly caricatured - I don't even believe there's a single African character that has more than a few lines - but it's an excellent film if what you're after is combat (this made my top combat films of all time list!)

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Tears of the Sun (2003)

Tears of the Sun.

The Worst!

African Region: Fictionalized Bruce Willis Africa

Bruce Willis stars in another lame, heartless action film that is barely remembered.  Willis is a Navy SEAL in an African conflict country - where it doesn't really matter - and makes the heart felt decision to take responsibility for a beautiful doctor and her refugees - as they're pursued by psychotic African baddies with machine guns.  One by one, the SEALs die off, leaving only Willis left to save the day.  Not much else can be said about the film, it's notable for nothing.  The film's mass is comprised of air - entirely forgettable.

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Liberia: An Uncivil War (2004)


The Best!

African Region: Liberia

A documentary that focuses on the genocidal reign of Charles Taylor, the psychopathic dictator of Liberia, a once prosperous west African nation that devolved into civli war and genocide.  Liberia was one of the first hot areas that saw the wide spread use of drugged child soldiers; child soldiers that committed horrific crimes, including rape, murder, and even - as some reports have suggested - cannibalism.  This documentary is up and down in regards to production values, but it at least tackles an important topic.

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The Last King of Scotland (2006)


The Best!

African Region: Uganda

This film, based on a real-life story, follows a recent British medical school graduate who - seeking some adventure - decides to take up his first role as a doctor in Uganda, working for Ida Amin in the 1970s.  While at first Ida appears to be a hard-working man of the people, very soon he is realized to be slightly insane and genocidal.  Highly entertaining and very entertaining film, one that also highlights an important period of history for African conflicts.  Stars Forest Whitaker.

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War Don Don (2010)


The Best!

African Region: Sierra Leone

This documentary tells the story of Issa Sesay, at first glance just another dictatorial war criminal in Sierra Leone.  Filmed during his trial in front of a United Nations judicial court, he is tried for war crimes.  The real story is a bit more complex though and the film raises interesting questions.  Can a single man be responsible for the actions of all his men if he's not leading a modern top-down vertically oriented military?  And if he was so intent on simply being murderous, why did he try so hard to make peace?  And why did he work so hard at supporting the poor?  We like to be abel to label our enemies in a simplistic good/evil dichotomy, it makes it easier to dislike them.  The most interesting thing this documentary does it complicate the issue by revealing the most horrible truth at all, that Sesay was probably a peace keeper, a humanitarian, and yes, also a ruthless war criminal.

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Machine Gun Preacher (2011)


The Worst!

African Region: Sudan

Ohh Hollywood.  This film is "ostensibly" based on a real-life story.  And a pretty amazing one at that.  Average Joe American sits at home watching his television and hears about children in Africa being targeted by warlords and enlisted to fight in wars.  Decides to move to Africa to try and do something about it.  This would make an awesome story if it was done realistically.  It would be filled with real-life tension and excitement as a normal guy without super hero powers faced off against real-life extreme situations.  Unfortunately, Hollywood didn't think that was exciting enough, so they made the protagonist into a sort of 1980s action hero and the film became a sort of dumb action film / morality tale.  Also another war story of a white man going to rescue indigenous peoples.

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War Witch (2012)


The Best!

African Region: Congo

One of the few non-documentaries to arise about the various African related conflicts, War Witch tells the story of a young girl in an unnamed African country (though it was filmed in the Congo) who is forced to become a child soldier.  The film shows us the trauma experienced by these child soldiers first hand and it's a brutal reckoning.  In one truly horrific scene, the protagonist is forced to shoot her own parents.  This would be gruesome puerile filmmaking if only there weren't so many real life stories that echoed those show in the film.  A great film -- but be prepared to view it with a box of tissues.  One of my best children war films.