I spent my Christmas on a train travelling from Canada’s east coast to the west. When I wasn’t gazing out of the huge plate glass windows at mountains, frozen lakes and endless prairie land, I was reading Mansa Musa and the Empire of Mali by P. James Oliver.
What an eye opener! Here’s your 60 second guide to the medieval ruler:
- Kankan Musa was the 10th Mansa of the Mali empire
- Mansa is a Sudanese word for ‘emperor’
- His control of Africa’s salt and gold mines at a time when the commodities were hugely valuable made him the richest person in history
- Ruled from 1312-1337
- Turned the University of Sankore in Timbuktu into a fully staffed learning institution with the largest collection of books in Africa since the Library of Alexandria (246 BC).
- Built the Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu (from pounded earth, straw and wood. It has stood for over 700 years)
- Undertook an incredible 4,000km pilgrimage from West Africa to Mecca and back
Amazingly, while I was reading and travelling, Twitter began talking about Mansa Musa. Apparently Black Panther director, Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B Jordan are planning to make a film about the African ruler. The chatter began on Twitter (where debate is an Olympic sport) so opinion was soon divided. Some people argued that Mansa Musa was unworthy of a film because he owned slaves.
He did. Thousands of them.
Yet, I’d still pitch my tent in the ‘Yes, tell his story’ camp.
His life was epic. The same way we don’t question whether to make films about Churchill, Gandhi, Columbus or JFK – all of whom have problematic legacies. I don’t believe we should restrict ourselves to telling stories only about African figures we deem uncontroversial.
I’ll go further. I think a film would be too small a canvas to capture the adventures and numerous achievements of Mansa Musa. I’d prefer a five-season, streamed TV series a la The Crown. It would reek of money. Lavish sets, far flung locations, teams of costume designers, baked mud palaces, piles of gold everywhere…
If, however, I were restricted to an eight-part series, this is how it would break down.