HBO’s The Newsroom goes to Africa

Maggie in Uganda.

Maggie in Uganda.

Last Sunday’s episode of the HBO news drama The Newsroom took off for Uganda. Neophyte journalist Maggie Jordan travels with cameraman Gary Cooper to document a story at an orphanage. She does the usual schtick of a young white girl reading to the young orphan, but things turn when a raid at night forces them to flee and the boy is killed.

Slate’s Willa Paskin says the depiction of the story treads on the worst parts of the white savior complex. She criticizes the episode writing:

We finally found out what happened in Africa, a huge, complicated continent that The Newsroom portrayed as stereotypically as possible: a violent, tragic, traumatic place for blond girls just trying to do their best…Here is an episode of TV in which Africa is presented as a place full of gentle children used to living amid tragedy and violence, where senseless, needless brutality happens all of the time, and the meaning of all of that—its longterm ramifications and importance—is to instigate an emotional crisis in a white American.

Though she may have it wrong. Commentators point out that the episode shows that Maggie is a representation of the white savior complex gone wrong. Her actions are what contributed to the death of the child and a complete misunderstanding of what she was getting herself into.

“The Newsroom told a story of maggie (sic) going to Africa and something traumatic happening to her, they not once alluded to this being the case for the entire continent,” responds Kevon Swami.

Thom Stark writes in the comments:

Here was the point: White American journalist, self-involved, wants to go to Africa to prove herself. In doing so, she is responsible for bringing violence upon children who would have been better off without her being there. The book she read to Daniel, obviously, reflected her own first-world conceptions of tranquility. It was her delusion; that’s what the book represented. The whole storyline was a critique of the White Savior complex, and you missed it.

I tend to think Paskin has it wrong here, but I am not quite so sure that it is as self aware as some commentators say. Sorkin does like to have overarching trends within a show and this one, as the title suggests, was about the unintended consequences of actions. The boy dies because of Maggie’s actions and the very fact that she and Gary are there in the first place. This comes together when it is revealed that the cattle herders were shouting for Gary’s camera.

The fact that there is this gap on opinions may mean that the episode’s intent missed its mark. Let’s be optimistic and say that Sorkin and his team of writers were well aware of the shortcomings of the savior complex in Africa and used Maggie’s story to expose it.

The likely story is that there was some level of awareness and Uganda served as the backdrop for Maggie experiencing a traumatic event that in some way was her own fault. Gary is shown to be obviously naive by the fact that he filmed looking for drug lords, but the writers were more subtle with Maggie which ends up rather strange because she is the character that the audience is constantly reminded has little journalistic experience for the entire first season.

Thoughts from the crowd?


Update: Amanda over at Wronging Rights blogs about the episode and recommends establishing a Bachdel test for telling stories involving African countries and characters.

Western audiences, trained on years of Carter-goes-to-Congo storylines, may be surprised to discover that people in “Africa” have problems other than those that ride in with one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. And screenwriters, long trained to think of Africa as a continent-sized arena for the battle of White Person vs. White Person’s Inner Demons, may initially have difficulty finding other uses for it.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]