April 14, 2009
The Prodigal Son, 2008
Like Katrina Browne's earnest and impassioned essay film, Traces of the Trade, South African filmmaker Kurt Orderson's The Prodigal Son is less a journey to find ancestral roots - albeit from the other side of the slave trade - than an invitation for an open dialogue on race and reconciliation. Having lived his youth in the waning days of apartheid in Cape Flats, a designated "Coloured Labour Preference Area" (a transplanted community in Cape Town that, a generation earlier, had been forcibly uprooted from a once integrated District Six that was being converted to a whites-only area during the government's implemented segregation in the late 1960s), Orderson embarks on a journey to trace the origins of his heritage beyond the adopted notions of home that the Cape Flats resettlement community represents. Researching the family lineage back to his great-grandfather, Joseph, a merchant sailor who had apparently jumped ship and decided to forge a new life in South Africa, Orderson soon discovers that his great-grandfather did not come directly from West Africa as the family commonly believed, but rather, from Barbados where, as a descendent of emancipated slaves who had been brought to the island to work in the sugar cane plantations, he had sought work in the transport ships in order to seek a better - if equally racially problematic - life away from the cycle of indentured service on the islands. But rather than finding long lost members of an extended family, Orderson's visit to the island instead leads to more ambiguity as his seemingly personal link to his ancestry - his surname - proves to have been an arbitrary identification by former slaves to convey their association with the plantations from which they were emancipated. At the core of Orderson's unresolved quest is an exploration of African diasporic identity, where national and cultural roots serve as convenient signifiers that sidestep engagement with broader issues of race and identification. This evasion is trenchantly illustrated during Orderson's conversation with a pair of older generation Barbadians - one of whom bristles at the comment that his race is African - implicitly revealing not only ingrained ideas about racial hierarchy (measured by degrees of separation from one's continental roots), but also the perception that identity is binary and exclusive, contributing to divisions that continue to undermine Africa's transcendence from a corrosive legacy of colonialism and exploitation.