Masai: The New Red Indians of Hollywood

A young Masai woman in Kenya. (Photo: AFP)

Silhouettes clad in bright red shukas [wraps] grin innocently on the new Internet video promo clips of Tomb Raider 2 launched last month ahead of the movie’s August release date.

They are Masai morans [warriors] hired to play extras, doing what they have always done on the screen—providing a visual effect and exotic background for Hollywood and other international moviemakers. They appear only as background images for star Angelina Jolie.

Masai are the Red Indians of today’s Hollywood adventure movies, largely faceless, pliable, and with no speaking roles other than occasional chanting. Kenyan film director Jane Murago-Munene recalls one instance when an American director told his Masai cast to stop making “native” noises. “I only want your images,” he barked. The Masai are not new on the silver screen, but Hollywood’s fascination with them appears to have increased of late, and there are more roles nowadays for Masai from Kenya and Tanzania.

In the days when Red Indians were in vogue, they would be depicted as mindless savages who foolishly rode into a hail of bullets from the cowboys and lost every battle. But this was before big-name Hollywood celebrities such as Marlon Brando spoke out against such negative portrayals and became the voice of Native Americans in the movie industry.

Since then, many more lobbyists have emerged to speak against the ridiculing of minority cultures. They include Survival International, a group led by Richard Gere that deals with the issue at a global level and lists protection of the Masai among its areas of interest.

This has obviously restricted what a film director may do with a Masai. But even without forcing the Masai characters to play degrading roles, their parts do not require any acting skills. They are required to appear as symbols to satisfy the filmmakers’ ideal of exotic Africa. “We do not see their humanistic value, which is important if one is to really appreciate them as people,” says Sultan Somji, an ethnographer who has lived among the Masai for many years.

In the 1996 box office hit Independence Day, they were seen crawling out of a bush to join in the celebration after America saved the world from an invading Martian force. In most films, the Masai are shown in their trademark posture, standing on one leg, or herding cattle and occasionally doing their trademark dance, jumping high in the air. This is what is shown on Tomb Raider 2 and one cannot expect much better from The Mummy 3, expected to have Masai as extras. Indeed Tomb Raider 2 tells it all. The casting agent had to get Benin movie star Djimon Hounsou (seen in Gladiator and Amistad) to play a Masai character.

The increasing commercialization of the Masai and their culture in the movie industry is a consequence of the high profile they have developed over the years through their reputation for courage and culture and the promotion of this image by international fashion photographers, producers of documentary films, authors, and the Kenyan tourism industry.

Although leading fashion photographers have played a role in stereotyping the community, the recent casting of the Masai in movies has broken new terrain in terms of exposure to the mainstream entertainment audience. All the films play on the line of their exoticism and “innocence” without bothering to tell the Masai story or create parts that bring out their culture and intrinsic values.

A senior official in the Kenya tourism sector accuses the government of perpetuating the stereotypes about the Masai in order to attract tourists. The official said that during international tourism fairs abroad, the Kenya Tourist Board (KTB) has been equally guilty of exploiting the image of the Masai by objectifying the people and their culture. “The board always hires a Masai man to stand on one leg in their typical ‘rest’ posture at the entrance of the Kenyan stand. Our motive is to exploit Westerners’ fascination with the Masai and it always works, attracting many visitors to our stands. But I feel that this has not been fair to the Masai.”

The official says that the ministry has even hired non-Masai with absolutely no knowledge of the community’s culture to pose at such fairs. “I once ventured into a lecture purportedly being conducted by a Kenyan Masai in the U.S. and it was completely absurd.” The man reportedly ran out of the lecture hall when Masai from Kenya entered. But another official from the tourism sector sees nothing wrong with the way the Masai are used to market tourism. “They always stand on one leg anyway,” he said. The public relations officer of the Ministry of Tourism, Eunice Muthamia, said KTB was responsible for the marketing strategy. “I’m surprised that they are throwing the issue back to us,” she said.

The Masai are not new to the West, but interest in them is growing, especially in Western Europe, where people are eager to sample exotic cultures. A tour operator says that for many visitors a holiday in Kenya is incomplete without a visit to a manyatta [Masai homestead]. But he is worried that the Masai bubble could soon burst. “We have done well because Tanzania has not used the Masai angle to market their tourism. We could lose significantly if it became apparent that there are also Masai in Tanzania,” he said.

Younger Masai are concerned that misrepresentation of their culture has created a fictional symbolism and distorted the reality of their community. Kenya Airways managing director Titus Naikuni, a Masai, thinks it is not enough for the Masai to complain about exploitation. “We need to appreciate our uniqueness and find a way of selling it.” He said the failure by the community to accept its uniqueness has left it open to exploitation by outsiders, who are not sensitive to telling the Masai story in a romanticized manner.

For overseas film producers, the drive to create a salable production has overwhelmed issues of cultural sensitivity. “I have seen a lot of fictional customs being attributed to the Masai,” says Amos Ntimama of Musiara, which runs Governors Camp. He says film producers need to be educated to distinguish between what is real and what is fiction about the Masai.

In many cases, the Masai are not even paid well for their screen roles. During the filming of her latest production, The Price of a Bride, in Magadi last year, Murago-Munene came across the cast of Tomb Raider 2 and was surprised that although her film was a low-budget, locally funded film, she was paying the Masai extras the same 300 Kenyan shillings (US$3.93) a day they were being paid in the Hollywood production.

Some Masai have also been accused of exploiting the Western fascination and riding on the wave of commercialization of their community. The so-called “professional Masai” make a living by hosting cultural talk shows abroad. Some groups do not mind the publicity enjoyed by the community but are concerned about the distortions and are striving to correct them.

The Masai have themselves been accused of peddling falsehoods. Muthamia said: “It is partly because of poverty, but more and more Masai are exploiting the situation and do not mind peddling untruths about their culture to make money.” The concern of proponents of the culture is that the movie image of the Masai is passing for the real thing.