But this carefree Kate Ashby is not the Kate Ashby we’ll be speaking about. The Kate Ashby of the BBC show Black Earth Rising, which lands on Netflix January 25, undergoes one of the most harrowing character arcs ever seen on TV. Michaela Coel, best known for writing and starring in the cringe comedy Chewing Gum, proves her dramatic might by playing Kate, a character who endures unimaginable hardship.
As a child, Kate is rescued from the 1994 Rwandan genocide by an aid worker. Her village’s sole survivor, Kate is adopted by Eve Ashby (Harriet Walker), a renowned prosecutor in the field of international criminal law. Naturally, Kate grows up traumatized by all that she’s experienced and all that she’s lost — she doesn’t even know her birth name. Now 29 years old, Kate works as an investigator in the same London legal chamber as her mother. When the show begins, Kate is emerging from a stay at a mental institution following a suicide attempt.
Kate is caustic, intelligent and strong — she needs to be. Over the course of the show, Kate is pummeled with even more hardship. One thing Kate isn’t, however, is based on a real person.
For Coel, though, Kate might as well be real. In interviews, Coel speaks of Kate as if she were a personal role model. “Every character I play, a little bit stays with me like residue, and I think Kate is one I’m determined to keep. Her resilience, her defiance… she is the strongest person I know – I do know she’s not real – and her pursuit of the truth is unique and she should be praised and comforted for that. I think I’m a bit stronger, I think I’m a more defiant and I’m a bit more curious,” Coel said in an interview with Drama Quarterly.
Coel's involvement in Black Earth Rising brought the show's subject matter to the forefront of her attention — and that's the point. While the show's characters are fictional, Black Earth Rising depicts the aftermath of a devastating, bleak, and unfortunately very real chapter in recent history: The 1994 Rwandan Genocide, during which Hutu extremists took the lives of approximately 800,000 million Tutsi people and moderate Hutus within the span of 100 days. The genocide spurred decades-long unrest and war in Rwanda's neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“It was the most intensive ethnic slaughter in the 20th century,” Black Earth Rising creator Hugo Blick said in an interview with The Guardian. “I am very concerned that people aren’t aware.” With an average of 1.1 million views per episode in the U.K., Black Earth Rising exposed people to something that, as Coel told The Guardian, they should have been taught in school.
While Black Earth Rising does an excellent job of explaining its disturbing subject matter, some background information may be useful before watching the series. As the BBC explains, about 85% of Rwanda's population is Hutu. However, until 1959, the country was ruled by the Tutsi minority. In 1959, the Tutsis overthrew the monarchy, sending 300,000 Tutsis fleeing to neighboring countries like Uganda.
Violent conflict between the ethnic groups escalated in the '90s. Exiled Tutsis created the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which invaded Rwanda in 1990 and fought with the Hutus until 1993, when President Juvenal Habyarimana signed an agreement for a transition government that would include Tutsis. This angered the Hutu extremists.
The actual genocide was spurred by plane crash. On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the Hutu Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, and the Burundi president, Cyprian Ntayamira, was downed, killing the leaders and all others on board. To this day, the culprits of the crash are unclear; the Hutus blamed the RPF, and the RPF claimed it had been framed to provide reasoning for the actions the Hutus took afterwards.
An hour after the crash, the Presidential Guard, armed forces, and Hutu militia groups began carrying out the genocide with alarming methodicalness. Civilians' ethnicities were written on their ID cards, making it easier for the militia to target specific people. They also had lists of political opponents. The names of the doomed were read on the radio. Civilians also turned on each other — husbands killing their Tutsi wives, priests and nuns killing people who sought shelter.
The genocide finally ended when the RPF, backed by Uganda, took the capital of Rwanda. In the show, Alice Munezaro (Noma Dumezweni) and her adoptive sister, Rwandan president Bibi Mundanzi (Abena Ayivor), were members of the RPF. Just like Bibi in the show, the current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, led the RPF. Similarly, the show's RPF general Simon Nyamoya (Danny Sapani) bears resemblance to the real (and controversial) general Bosco "Terminator" Ntaganda.
Though U.N. peacekeeping forces were stationed in Rwanda, the U.N. did not stop the killing. In fact, most U.N. troops pulled out. In 1999, the U.N. launched an independent report of its involvement with the genocide. "Our conclusion is there is one overriding failure which explains why the UN could not stop or prevent the genocide, and that is a lack of resources and a lack of will — a lack of will to take on the commitment necessary to prevent the genocide," former Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson summarized. Black Earth Rising points to the failures of the international peacekeeping community, as well as attempts in the international criminal court to bring perpetrators of the genocide to justice.
In addition to being a riveting drama, the BBC show is essential viewing for its highlighting of a terrible moment in history. Kate Ashby would want you to see it.