In life as in the kitchen, it’s disorienting when the same set of ingredients yields wildly different results. Black Earth Rising, the eight-part miniseries written and directed by creator Hugo Blick, shares an identical foundation with The Honourable Woman, the eight-part miniseries written and directed by Blick a half-decade previously. Both shows center on a woman raised in the United Kingdom, but with roots in conflict-ridden regions and trauma that follows them into adulthood. Both shows share a preoccupation with how people and places should move beyond their violent, sectarian pasts. Both shows contrast the quiet remove of power’s highest levels with the emotion and brutality its players have repressed, if just barely.
The Honourable Woman was a well-executed crime yarn that anticipated the twin influxes of auteur-driven television and, with Maggie Gyllenhaal in the titular role, movie stars to lead it. And yet, from more or less the same blueprint, Black Earth Rising yields a misfire that feels behind the times rather than ahead of them. The discrepancy between Black Earth’s pedigree—not just its writer-director, but also its cast—and final outcome is jarring enough to demand unpacking. How does one exercise of ambition and creative control go awry where another succeeds?
Coproduced by BBC Two, Black Earth Rising is the latest in a series of Netflix acquisitions, along with Bodyguard and Collateral, aiming to make the British political thriller an in-house specialty. The story follows Kate Ashby (Michaela Coel), a British legal investigator orphaned by the Rwandan genocide and raised by the attorney who rescued her. Working with family friend and fellow lawyer Michael Ennis (John Goodman), Kate has made a mission out of sorting through the legal and moral aftermath of the genocide nearly 25 years after the fact. It’s a wrenching, Byzantine effort scattered across an intercontinental array of legal systems and competing priorities: the International Criminal Court, on the grounds that crimes against humanity ought to be tried on the global stage; France, where former colonizers have an incentive to downplay their own culpability; and Rwanda itself, aiming to prove its progress with a court system sophisticated enough to offer génocidaires a fair trial in their own nation.
By its very nature, a globe-spanning legal saga entails a massively complicated plot, drawing on both history and current political dynamics of which the audience may not be aware. It’s a smart move on its face, then, to place actors like Coel and Goodman at the action’s center. Goodman, as my colleague Rob Harvilla wrote last week, has a paternal, jocular energy that’s been shorthand for “we’re having a good time” since the (still-going) Dan Conner days. Coel, meanwhile, may have seen a kindred spirit in Blick, having created, written, and starred in her own breakout vehicle Chewing Gum, a semi-autobiographical farce about a sex-starved immigrant kid in London’s public housing. (Even more impressively, Coel had yet to hit 30 before she minted herself as a multi-hyphenate.) Both of these actors have a warm, welcoming energy well-suited to taking the edge off the dour prospect of excavating atrocities. They’re exactly whom you would want as your anchors.
Unfortunately, Black Earth Rising never manages to capitalize on this built-in advantage. Instead of letting Coel and Goodman counter the oppressive grimness of its concept, the show saddles them with a cumbersome script that mutes their natural appeal. The exposition is hammer-subtle; we know Kate is a Tutsi, the ethnic group slaughtered in 1994 at the hands of the Hutu majority, because she screams “I am a Rwandan Tutsi” at her adoptive mother, who is presumably already aware. Goodman speaks in an almost narcotized mumble, his ingrained charisma so dimmed that another character actually has to tell us Michael’s meant to have an “easy charm.” (Michael is also given a loved one in a coma for emotional stakes and/or soliloquizing, a crutch of a cliché that Goodman, of all actors, doesn’t need.) The dialogue in general is almost uncannily off-kilter, with lines shaped like witty banter or jokes that don’t register as such; one diplomat observes a particular combatant has “more enemies than I have intra-uterine fibroids.” Huh? This handicap isn’t exclusive to the leads of Black Earth Rising, yet it takes the heaviest toll on them and their ability to carry the show.
Kate, in particular, comes off as a Strong Female Character in the extreme. Coel is evidently attempting to show off her dramatic side here, yet in the process, she makes the classic mistake of overcompensating by stripping away any trace of levity. Kate subsequently has only two modes: steely resolve and total collapse, oscillating between them several times an episode. The audience gets almost nothing of her skill as an investigator, nor the nuances of her identity. And as they repeat over and over again, her stress-induced meltdowns start to lose their impact. The script can’t seem to imagine any other way for her to express her anger, confusion, and sorrow than tears.
The fatal flaws of its protagonists mean Black Earth Rising has a difficult time guiding the viewer through its plot, whose convoluted twists and mismanaged pacing would be an easier sell if they were pegged to more enjoyable company. The show’s inciting incident, a deadly shooting at the Hague, is inexplicably pushed to the second episode rather than appearing in the first. This event makes Black Earth Rising partly a mystery, a genre that requires an expert handle on how to stagger hints and reveals. But when they finally arrive, answers concern people and information the audience has only just been introduced to. Backstories are abruptly unloaded, their implications and importance given no time to register. Characters who showed up just moments before deliver emotional scenes the viewer has no context for or reason to invest in.
Black Earth Rising is grounded in one of the most viscerally horrifying events in human history. Yet with every misstep and unnecessary contortion, the show dulls the edge of its remarkably potent source material. Blick is interested in big, sweeping, geopolitical questions: How does a nation take full accountability for its past? Are war crimes the jurisdiction of a particular country or the international community? When African officers are tried by European courts, is that just another form of colonialism? I wasn’t persuaded by the argument Blick advances, a pro-intervention line of thought that claims it’s even more patronizing for Westerners to give up on the prospect of justice for Rwandans than to deliver it on their behalf. Still, that’s probably because Blick has designed such an ill-suited vehicle for such a case. (I didn’t love the ideological aspects of Bodyguard, either, but I can appreciate a good nail-biter when I see one.) The show’s long game is too unclear for too much time; the wonky concepts it’s toying with too clumsily welded to painful personal histories. If Black Earth Rising has a tragic flaw, it’s that the solutions to its problems are right at its center. It just never lets Coel and Goodman work their magic.