“The Crown” on Netflix is a show about the life of Queen Elizabeth II, rich with period detail. Rich, that is, until the first scene in episode eight of the second season, which opens in an ersatz orientalist fantasy palace that’s supposed to be in Accra, Ghana.
Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah (played ably by British actor Danny Sapani—at least until the soul-curdling moment he tries to speak Twi) stands at a podium talking about forging new alliances among African states. A confederation of African stereotypes looks on approvingly.
It’s crosscut with a scene where soldiers take down a portrait of the Queen. As president Nkrumah screams about “a socialist Africa for Africans,” the soldiers put up a portrait of Lenin.
In the episode “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,” Queen Elizabeth, played by Claire Foy, wades into a standoff between the US and Russia over Nkrumah’s “precious dam,” to stop Russia “turn[ing] the whole continent red.” (You can take a moment to appreciate the irony).
Elizabeth mostly wants to prove to Jackie Kennedy that the Queen is not irrelevant. There’s some vague stuff about Britain losing its place in the world, and the Queen establishing herself as the head of the Commonwealth. But mostly, it’s because US president John F Kennedy’s hot wife said she had thick ankles.
Let’s be clear, because it seems like the show’s writers may not have been aware of the following. The British did not build any orientalist fantasy palaces in Accra. Nkrumah was a measured orator, (I’ll leave you to decide why the show runners made him an angry black man.) And Ghana was never an African satellite state of the Soviet Union.
Importantly, Nkrumah’s “precious dam” still provides much of Ghana’s electricity. Surplus power from the Akosombo Dam is exported to other west African countries. Back when it was built, in the mid-1960s, they had almost no power plants of their own, because there was virtually no spending on infrastructure during the colonial era. Which is one of the reasons African countries courting communist Russia in the first place.
Clearly, we should know better than to trust a Netflix show with the nuances of post-colonial Africa, especially after that Idris Elba movie about a generic horrific African war as if they’re interchangeable and we all have one.
In ‘The Crown,” the Queen visits Ghana in 1961. She dances with Nkrumah, (it’s controversial, because he’s an African! And it’s the foxtrot! How racy!) The president is “awed by the gesture,” a newsreel intones, and suspends all contact with the Russians.
Except Nkrumah did not. The Queen did visit, and spent 11 days in the country. But Ghana’s president was adept at playing the British and Americans against the Russians to get what he wanted. As much as Elizabeth thought she was charming and gaming Kwame, Kwame was charming and gaming Elizabeth.
By the time 1961 rolled around, Ghana had been independent for four years.
Kwame Nkrumah first led independence protests in the late 1940s and got a three-year sentence for economic sabotage and subversive activities. In 1951, while still in prison, he stood for election as head of the Convention People’s Party, which won all but four of Ghana’s 38 seats. Nkrumah was released from jail and became head of government business later that day under colonial governor Charles Arden-Clarke. Nkrumah declared: “I am no communist, and never have been.”
But at heart, Nkrumah was always a socialist. He wrote extensively about moving Ghana closer to states he thought best represented the interests of pan-Africanism and away from the countries that stood to lose wealth and influence if his vision of African unity was realized.
This is where the Soviet Union came in. By the time Ghana won independence and Nkrumah became prime minister in 1957, most of Ghana’s trade was still controlled by foreign firms: over 90% of all importers, and 96% of all timber concessions were run by western firms. If Nkrumah was going to change this, he needed a bargaining chip.
In 1956, during the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev recognized “the awakening of the African people.” And Nkrumah’s administration would come to capitalize on that, negotiating loans with the Soviet Union on better terms than the British and International Monetary Fund offered, along with industrial plants and trade agreements.
Nkrumah became Ghana’s first president in 1960 wasn’t just “wily” like a “lion” as Prince Phillip (played by Matt Smith) says in a bit of casual racism (that is literally the most believable thing in this episode.) Nkrumah was skilled at playing east against west, and telling each side what they wanted to hear to get what he wanted.
In fact, Russia stayed influential long after the Queen’s visit, and only really backed out of Ghana in 1966 after eight Russian advisors were killed in the coup d’état that deposed Nkrumah. Even then, relations with the Soviet Union ebbed and flowed with different Ghanaian governments.
I was born in Moscow in 1985 to Ghanaian parents. My mother was attending a Russian medical school named after Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961 by the Americans and Belgians. It used to be that most of the Ghanaian elite were trained in the US or UK. Now it’s the US, UK and the former Soviet States.
The sad thing about this episode of “The Crown” is that it’s the most significant dramatization of the events of 1961 to date. And Ghanaians are depicted as background players in the fate of their own country, which simply isn’t true. This is how people come to believe they have no heroes. This is how people come to believe they are just victims of history.
*Correction: Kwame Nkrumah became prime minister after independence in 1957 and president in 1960.