African Studies Cinema and Television
James M. Burns
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0208


The history of moving images in Africa dates to the late 19th century, when the first films premiered in South Africa shortly after their world debut in Paris. By 1940 cinema had become a staple of public leisure in urban areas across the continent. In the postwar era cinema’s popularity grew in cities and began to make inroads into rural areas. In the 1930s, colonial administrators started producing didactic films for African consumption. Before the Second World War, the majority of films made for African audiences were produced by administrators in British territories. In the postwar era other colonial governments got involved to varying degrees in the project to educate Africans through film. Films for African education continued to be produced and distributed in the postcolonial era by governments and international aid organizations. The earliest commercial film industry in Africa emerged in South Africa during the silent era. Elsewhere, indigenous production did not begin until the late colonial period. Television came relatively late to Africa, premiering in Nigeria during the waning days of colonial rule and being introduced gradually during the 1960s and 1970s in most nations. The initial reach of television was limited by the poverty of most Africa consumers, and African governments produced few original television programs before 2000. The economic crisis that gripped postcolonial Africa in the 1960s shuttered many urban cinemas and limited television’s reach at a time when it was expanding globally. During this period African artists, frequently with the financial assistance of Western governments, and technical training on both sides of the iron curtain, began producing their own films. A central concern of these pioneering artists was to provide a response to the negative depictions of Africa that were a staple of Western commercial cinema. The distribution of these films was limited on the continent, though many received critical acclaim when shown at film festivals in Europe and North America. In the 1980s audiences in West Africa became consumers of a new genre of moving image, video films, which were produced on limited budgets in urban areas in West Africa. The advent of satellite television services in the 1990s made moving images increasingly accessible to African people across the continent. The end of apartheid in 1990 also proved a fillip to cinema and television production in southern Africa. In the 21st century the availability of visual images has expanded across the continent, as individual ownership of televisions has risen broadly and mobile phone technology has made moving images available to many other consumers.

Social History of Cinema in Africa

The literature on the history of cinema in Africa dates to the dawn of the movies. Early on in the cinema age travelers and journalists described the experiences of film shows in colonial Africa. The first academic texts to look at the social history of moviegoing in colonial Africa appeared in the 1930s. During the post–World War II era academics—particularly anthropologists—began to write about the effects of cinema on African communities. Over the past twenty years there has been a growing interest among scholars in the subject of cinema and colonial Africa.

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