Flickering Shadows — 2002

Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe

By J. M. Burns

“Burns has assembled an impressive amount of evidence — visual, written and verbal…This is an informative work which offers a model for historically informed scholarship on African film.”

Patrick Williams — Modern African Studies

“Deeply researched, well-written, and provocative…It will not only stimulate debate on African film history but should shape the parameters of that debate. Although Burns focuses on Zimbabwe, he has the broad, comparative perspective and grounding in the issues of film history to make this work important not only to African historians but to scholars interested in the global impact of film in relationship to imperialism and colonialism.”

Charles Ambler — The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Every European power in Africa made motion pictures for its subjects, but no state invested as heavily in these films, and expected as much from them, as the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. Flickering Shadows is the first book to explore this little-known world of colonial cinema.

J. M. Burns pieces together the history of the cinema in Rhodesia, examining film production, audience reception, and state censorship, to reconstruct the story of how Africans in one nation became consumers of motion pictures. Movies were a valued “tool of empire” designed to assimilate Africans into a new colonial order. Inspired by an inflated confidence in the medium, Rhodesian government offcials created an African Film industry that was unprecedented in its size and scope.

Transforming the lives of their subjects through cinema proved more complicated than white officials had anticipated. Although Africans embraced the medium with enthusiasm, they expressed critical opinions and demonstrated decided tastes that left colonial officials puzzled and alarmed.

Flickering Shadows tells the fascinating story of how motion pictures were introduced and negotiated in a colonial setting. In doing so, it casts light on the history of the globalization of the cinema. This work is based on interviews with white and black filmmakers and African audience members, extensive archival research in Africa and England, and viewings of scores of colonial films.


J. M. Burns is a professor of African history at Clemson University. He is the co-editor of Problems in Modern African Studies, Historical Problems of Imperial Africa, and Problems in African History.

Cover of 'Flickering Shadows'

In Series