Review: Netflix’s ‘Black Earth Rising’ deftly explores war but lacks a personal connection

Television Critic

Netflix’s latest series of substance to drop in the middle of the night seemingly unannounced is “Black Earth Rising,” a British-American international thriller that’s set in the wake of the Rwandan civil war.

This suspenseful but uneven drama recounts the worst genocide in modern history, and the lack of international outrage, through the emotional journey of Kate Ashby (Michaela Coel, “Chewing Gum”). While the eight-part series deftly unpacks difficult questions about neocolonialism and the effect of geopolitics on the pursuit of justice, it’s less successful in forging a strong bond between viewers and the characters on screen. (I reviewed the first four episodes.)

The series, which premieres Friday, follows Kate, a British millennial in present-day London who remembers little to nothing about being orphaned nearly 30 years ago. Her Tutsi family was among an estimated 800,000 people slaughtered during a 100-day, 1994 genocide orchestrated by Hutu government factions. She was adopted as a child and raised in the UK by Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter), an international prosecutor whose career is built upon seeking justice for the victims of bloody wars across Africa.


Kate’s an emotionally unstable underachiever who has lived in her mother’s shadow working as a part-time investigative assistant, but a split forms between the women when Eve takes a case prosecuting a Tutsi rebel leader who was instrumental in ending the genocide.

Kate is furious: “He’s a Rwandan Tutsi who helped stop the genocide! ... It’s like the Second World War is over, and we’re Jewish, and suddenly you’ve decided to prosecute Gen. Eisenhower because he tried to stop Hitler.”

Tragedy ensues, causing Kate to team with American human-rights attorney Michael Ennis (John Goodman). Research into her mother’s unfinished case makes them targets in a dangerous, geopolitical coverup, and Kate discovers hard truths about her past. The series moves between the UK, Europe and Africa, painstakingly connecting the dots between various conflicts, international incidents and personal tragedies.

Written and directed by Hugo Blick (“The Honorable Woman”), the first hourlong episode is riveting thanks to Walter’s superb performance as a woman torn between career pursuits and a needy daughter. But once she’s out of the picture, the human drama meant to drive this story loses steam.

The intense, embattled Kate and easygoing, rumpled attorney Ennis lack chemistry or any sort of intimate bond aside from missing Eve. Without that connection, the stakes are lowered, and their fight with assassins, spies, misleading European agents and priests are less interesting.

What does hit home here is the dramatization of a war and human-rights atrocity that Americans may have missed in the early ’90s when our own government was busy bombing Iraq. The accounts of characters here who survived the genocide, and the images of those who didn’t, are haunting. The series, which has already aired in the UK on BBC Two, highlights how little attention globally is paid toward the suffering in Africa. Says Kate, it’s as if the Western world and Europe just assume that “down there, genocide, war crimes, that’s just what they do to each other.”

Rebel campaigns in the Democratic Republic of Congo, conflict-free mineral rights and court tribunals at The Hague are all subjects wrapped into “Black Earth Rising.” But the upshot is that no one seems to find the justice they seek when that justice isn’t sought by a higher African court, or when it’s handed down by outside nations with outside interests. It’s a no-win game, with very human consequences. This drama certainly illustrates those points, but largely without the human side needed to make the abstract real.

‘Black Earth Rising’

Where: Netflix

When: Any time, starting Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)