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'I know my character is not real but she is still a hero to me'

Black Earth Rising is a new thriller centred on international war crimes. Georgia Humphreys meets star Michaela Coel and writer Hugo Blick

Michaela Coel as Kate Ashby
Michaela Coel as Kate Ashby

How much do you know about the prosecution of international war crimes? If the answer is 'very little', you're not alone - it's a topic many of us are unfamiliar with. Take actress Michaela Coel. Before reading the script for Black Earth Rising, a new BBC Two thriller that deals with the complicated legal ramifications of the Rwandan genocide, she had no idea about the history the show covers.

"I felt outraged... shocked at my own ignorance," admits the 30-year-old, known for writing and starring in E4 sitcom Chewing Gum. "When did this happen? I was asking my mum, 'Why didn't you tell me?'

"I took a dedication to the pursuit of getting the role because I wanted to correct my own ignorance and I wanted to somehow feel a sense of redemption from my lack of awareness."

Coel plays Kate Ashby, who was adopted from Rwanda as a child during the genocide, and raised in Britain by Eve Ashby (The Crown's Harriet Walter), a world-class British prosecutor in international criminal law.

Now in her 20s, Kate has followed in her mother's footsteps and works as a legal investigator in the law chambers of Michael Ennis (played by Roseanne star John Goodman).

"She's absolutely incredible," Coel says of her character. "I understand that she is not real, but she is my hero."

The story takes a turn when Eve embarks on a case at the International Criminal Court, prosecuting an African militia leader, and Michael and Kate end up on a journey that will alter their lives forever.

Discussing her preparation for the role, Coel reveals she read various accounts of genocide survivors.

"I found the more I read, the more tangled everything became," she explains. "It was almost like a rabbit hole that I felt I didn't have the IQ to master."

Writer Hugo Blick, whose previous successes include political spy thriller The Honourable Woman, understandably did a lot of research.

"In order to feel authentic and knowledgeable about these things, it took about six months of research through Rwanda and into the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a number of people whose experiences are, in some ways, shown to influence the story," says the 53-year-old writer. "But they're not personifications."

After completing The Honourable Woman, about a baroness trying to forge new ties between Israelis and Palestinians, Blick recognised he was "interested in the reconciliation of trauma".

"So, I thought, 'How does that work institutionally?' Looking at war crimes, that's a pretty big traumatic event, and how are we helping to reconcile people to that? And why are we doing it as a Western environment? Should we be doing it? Why are we doing it?"

Issues of justice, guilt and self-determination are touched on across the episodes.

Blick calls the unfamiliarity of the story both "the strength of the show and the hill it has to climb".

"Our knowledge of modern Africa reminds you that during the genocide it was a period when O J Simpson was arrested," he says.

"What do we remember? We remember O J Simpson's arrest, the tragic death of two people, but, in fact, at the same time, up to a million people were killed in Rwanda.

"We talk about how the West sometimes expresses this opinion - which is horrifically dangerous - that, 'Down there, that's just what they do to each other, isn't it?'

"That (is a) total lack of engagement, responsibility and recognition, and when we make those kind of comments is something we look to explore within the story."

Coel agrees that an important function of drama is to raise awareness, but asked whether she thinks it can change people's minds, she seems less sure.

"As we've seen as history repeats itself again and again, minds are very malleable things and at the same time very rigid," she suggests. "In myself as a writer, I don't really write to change people's minds. I write to present, 'Here's some considerations'."

Blick simply hopes that, after watching the series, people have a better understanding of "our relationship between our institutions, justice and Africa".

"It doesn't mean that we cannot be critical of African environments," he points out. "This is a story that is built to be a compulsive thriller and it's asking some difficult questions."

Coel's parents were born in Ghana, where filming of Black Earth Rising took place.

"It was my first time going home and it was absolutely overwhelming," recalls the actress. "It was beautiful, but it was a roller-coaster."

Black Earth Rising, BBC Two, Monday, 9pm

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