Film School

Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations Tukufu Zuberi educates from the director's chair.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

By Loraine Terrell

“Just because you can say Timbuktu doesn’t mean you understand what recently happened there.… Part of the problem with the news is that it comes from nowhere and it goes nowhere. They never tell you the complete story.”

Tukufu Zuberi—the Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations, Professor and Chair of Sociology, and Professor of Africana Studies—has a problem with these information gaps. As a leading scholar he has devoted more than 25 years to understanding race, Africa, and African diaspora populations. He has a substantial record of scholarly accomplishment to his credit, but he also has, as he calls it, a vocation to educate in a broader arena—and this vocation sometimes requires he use tools that aren’t a traditional part of the academic trade.

That’s why his latest educational foray is in the form of a feature-length documentary. Titled African Independence, the film tells the story of the continent’s struggle to emerge from enslavement and colonization by Europeans. Just one short month after completing the film, Zuberi won top honors for it at the San Diego Black Film Festival, including Best Director and Best Documentary.

In African Independence, Zuberi’s goal was to leave viewers “better able to understand what is going on in Africa and why that’s important.” A big challenge, according to Zuberi, is that “often, when people think of Africa, it’s an afterthought or it’s with great pity.” As he sees it, it was critical for him to establish in his viewers a sense of connection with the people of Africa in order to move them beyond the “politics of pity” to a place of empathy and recognition of shared humanity.

To accomplish this, Zuberi explored points of connection such as the global experience of World War II, where Africans and Europeans shared the horrific disruption of everyday civilian life. The concept of independence creates another connection: “Independence is meaningful to most Americans." Zuberi notes that we all get that the “colonization” of Poland and France by Nazi Germany was “devastating for those people in Poland and France.” And so it goes with the colonization of Africa: “It’s devastating to the people in Ghana, it’s devastating to the people in Nigeria, it’s devastating to the people in Zambia, it’s devastating to the people in Mali. So these people then try to gain their independence. It’s a movement that we can all recognize is important for human beings.”

Zuberi’s personal interest in Africa is longstanding. As a doctoral student in demography, he aimed to do his dissertation research in Botswana. Health problems intervened with his travel plans, so he instead worked with data on Malaysia. Once he arrived at Penn as a newly recruited assistant professor, he immediately set his sights on Africa. “As soon as I got here I sat down with my senior colleagues and I said `Okay, I have to do Africa. I know I just got here but I need to go off to Africa.’ And they said, `We totally understand.’”

Zuberi spent a few critical years early in his career carrying out research and teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam and Makerere University.  He has since cemented his academic reputation through major demographic studies, including an extensive African census project, and award-winning books like Thicker than Blood: An Essay on How Racial Statistics Lie and White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology. Through his research and travels in Africa, Zuberi built up an impressive network of contacts ranging from health care workers to heads of state—and this network proved a critical asset when he turned his attention to telling Africa’s story on film.

Zuberi’s work on the long-running PBS series History Detectives also opened doors. Since 2007, he has appeared in nearly 70 segments of the show and covered a wide range of stories. In one recent segment, “Fiery Cross,” his investigation of a Ku Klux Klan music recording revealed that it shared a recording studio and engineer with Louis Armstrong. Zuberi remains fascinated by the juxtaposition: “So jazz is born in the same place as the Klan—get back!” Zuberi notes that History Detectives has not only been fun. It’s given him valuable experience in communicating about sensitive issues like race and allowed him to “test the waters of what could be done” in a documentary format. 

African Independence is Zuberi’s documentary debut, but he is a longtime student of the medium. He cites Ken Burns as a stylistic influence for his “powerful” use of music. He is also drawn to Michael Moore for his “refreshingly open” style—as Zuberi describes it,  “a little bit dirty. He’s out there with the people and you hear the wind whistling, and you see people walking through his shots, and I like that…. So when I’m interviewing a head of state I don’t say, `Let’s stay in your house where we can control the sound. Let’s go out on your porch, where we’ll hear the birds and the wind, and chairs moving, and people in the background doing stuff.’ And for me, that’s more honest.”

Other documentaries speak to Zuberi as a sociologist. Among these favorites are Native Land, narrated by Paul Robeson and dating from 1942, which examines the meaning of patriotism and democracy in the U.S., and Louis Massiah’s 1992 film W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography in Four Voices. Films like these showed Zuberi how documentaries “give us space for contemplation. We don’t have to make a quick point. We can go for the more subtle, nuanced, and important.”

While his career has taken some unusual turns, his goals have not changed. “My dream job over 25 years ago was to be sitting here at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s still my dream job—I love my job at Penn.” Dream job notwithstanding, Zuberi’s true vocation remains to chip away at ignorance. “Sometimes we forget about this part of citizenship. If you want a democracy to flourish, if you want justice to flourish, it has to be based on knowledge, intelligence,” he observes. “If what I have learned from these many years in the academy can contribute to enlightening people and elevating the level of conversation that we have about important topics, then for me I see it as an invaluable opportunity.”

For more information on the film, visit: