Is Sembene the most underestimated Penny Dreadful character?

Though Penny Dreadful has come to an end, thoughts of its narratives and characters still linger in my mind.

For those of you who are strangers to Showtime’s creation -starring Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett and Eva Green- Penny Dreadful is a celebration of the gothic genre of literature. What sets it apart from modern takes on the gothic is its reverence and observance for the genre. This is a show that gives a flawless portrayal of gothic literature and everything that it stands for; pioneers of the genre such as Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) did not weave chilling tales together purely for the pleasure of it. Gothic literature was created to make salient points about the ills of society and as a revolt against the status quo, and Penny Dreadful is no exception. The series follows a group of unlikely allies who are either suffering for past transgressions or coming to terms with the darkest recesses of their minds.

The British Empire is exposed for its imperial voyages of the past through the protagonist, Sir Malcolm (played by Timothy Dalton), conceit and covetousness is unpacked in Miss Vanessa Ives, the God-complex is portrayed in Dr Hyde and Victor Frankenstein and excess is explored in Dorian Grey. But one thing I longed to see was an in depth exploration of the destructive operation of black capitalism in the African character Sembene, which was brought to light ever so briefly. In one episode, Jason asks Sembene what he has done to deserve spiritual persecution and he confesses to selling his countrymen to slave traders. This narrative, along with Sir Malcolm’s, are arguably the most pressing because, unlike the other sins explored, these are not abstract and the impact of colonialism, slavery and imperialism have been deeply rooted in global history.

For many people who are not of African descent it might come as a surprise to learn that Africans often tricked and sold their kin for anything as little as gun powder or a sliver of a mirror at the height of transatlantic slave trade. This act was not only a measure of insurance (guarding one’s self-interest) but also a demonstration of internalised anti-blackness and proves that black capitalism is distinct and deserves its own discourse. Sembene placed his economic interests and ego above lineages and bloodlines of men, women and children who were quite literally the flesh of his flesh. Sembene could have been explored in order to bring nuance to the discussion surrounding transatlantic slavery and deepen our understanding of the insidious operation of this system.

Not every black narrative stems from slavery but so much of what we see exhibited today in people like Ben Carson, Tyrese (see his Instagram rant on black women) and Steve Harvey all began through seeds planted in the early 1600s. There is much to be unpacked about Sembene’s sin — much that could shed light on certain entrenched mentalities and habits passed down from generation to generation. In a similar vein, Sembene’s untimely and anti-climatic death needs to be considered. While other characters were allowed to come face-to-face with their demons and rise above their wrongdoing, Sembene was not afforded this luxury — could it be that his ending is an allegory for the world’s treatment of self-hating black men; giving life to the adage ‘death has respect for no man’ or is this just another injustice that too many, if not all, black narratives face?

Author: Tara Nafisa

Editor: Mara Zain

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