Symbolism in Classic African Films: Decoding Hidden Meanings


Classic African films are rich repositories of cultural expression and storytelling, offering a window into the diverse narratives and symbolic languages of the African continent. Beyond their surface plots and characters, these cinematic creations often hide intricate layers of symbolism, carrying profound meanings that transcend the screen. This exploration delves into the world of African cinema, aiming to decode the hidden symbols that imbue these films with cultural, historical, and social significance.

African cinema has a unique and complex relationship with symbolism. It emerges from a continent where storytelling has always been deeply embedded in tradition and ritual, with symbols playing a pivotal role in conveying profound messages. This tradition of symbolism is seamlessly woven into the fabric of African films, adding depth and layers of interpretation that enrich viewers cinematic experience.

The purpose of this journey is to unveil the symbolism present in classic African films and to shed light on the profound narratives they encapsulate. These symbols are not mere decorative elements but are essential in capturing the essence of the African experience. They speak to the heritage, struggles, and aspirations of the diverse peoples and cultures found on the continent.

Wend Kunni. Courtesy Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique

Through the lens of classic African films, we will decipher symbols that reflect themes of identity, post-colonialism, spirituality, gender roles, and political ideologies. These symbols serve as bridges between the past, present, and future of African societies, echoing the complexities of a continent with a rich tapestry of history and cultural diversity.

In the pages that follow, we will embark on a captivating journey through selected classic African films, unraveling their hidden meanings, and connecting them to the broader context of African history and culture. This exploration is not only a tribute to the artistic and cinematic achievements of African filmmakers but also an affirmation of the power of symbolism in storytelling, serving as attestation of the enduring importance of African cinema on the global stage.

Yeelen” by Souleymane Cissé,

I. Symbolism in Identity and Cultural Heritage

A. Traditional Clothing and Adornments: In classic African films, traditional clothing and adornments often carry profound cultural symbolism. The intricate patterns, colors, and materials used in clothing can signify one’s ethnic group, social status, and even spiritual beliefs. Films like “Keita: The Heritage of the Griot” by Dani Kouyaté depict the significance of clothing in preserving cultural identity.

B. Scarification and Body Art: Scarification and body art are prevalent in African cultures and are symbolic of one’s life journey, tribal affiliations, or accomplishments. These symbols are portrayed vividly in films such as “Moolaadé” by Ousmane Sembène, highlighting the role of body art in preserving cultural traditions.

Sarafina by Darrell Roodt

II. Post-Colonial Symbolism

A. Colonial Architecture and Landscapes: Many classic African films use colonial-era buildings, landscapes, and urban settings to symbolize the lasting impact of colonization. For example, “Black and White in Color” by Jean-Jacques Annaud uses a colonial setting to satirize the absurdity of colonialism.

B. Language as a Symbol of Resistance: African films often employ language as a symbol of resistance against colonial powers. Films like “Sarafina!” by Darrell Roodt showcase the power of language in uniting people and resisting oppression.

III. Spiritual and Mythological Symbolism

A. Ancestral Spirits: Ancestral spirits and their symbolism are recurrent themes in classic African films. These spirits connect the living to their ancestors and are central in films like “Yeelen” by Souleymane Cissé, where they represent the timeless wisdom of the past.

B. Animal Symbolism: Animals frequently appear as symbols in African cinema. The lion, for instance, symbolizes strength and leadership, while the serpent often signifies deceit. “Hyènes” by Djibril Diop Mambéty uses animal symbolism to explore moral dilemmas and human nature.

IV. Gender Roles and Empowerment

A. Hair as a Symbol of Female Empowerment: Hair is often used as a symbol of empowerment for women in classic African films. The documentary “Good Hair” by Jeff Stilson explores how hairstyles are linked to identity and self-esteem.

B. Traditional Roles and Feminism: Classic African films like “Wend Kuuni” by Gaston Kaboré depict the tension between traditional gender roles and feminism. The choice of female characters and their symbolism often reflects societal changes and struggles for gender equality.

Lumumba by Raoul Peck

V. Political and Social Symbolism

A. Weapons as Symbols of Resistance: Weapons are used symbolically in films like “Lumumba” by Raoul Peck to represent the struggle for independence and freedom from colonial rule.

B. The River as a Symbol of Life and Change: The river is a recurring symbol in many African films, representing life, change, and the flow of time. “La Sirène de Faso Fani” by Paulin Soumanou Vieyra is an example where the river is a central symbol of transformation and hope.

VI. Music and Dance as Symbols of Community

A. Rhythms and Beats: African films often use music and dance to symbolize community, cultural expression, and unity. “Rhythm Is It!” by Thomas Grube and Enrique Sánchez Lansch showcases how music can bridge cultural divides and bring people together.

B. Traditional Dance as a Cultural Expression: Films like “Osuofia in London” by Kingsley Ogoro employ traditional dance to symbolize cultural pride and the preservation of heritage within the African diaspora.

The exploration of symbolism in classic African films has revealed a captivating journey through the rich tapestry of cultures, histories, and societal landscapes on the continent. These films are far more than mere narratives; they are profound visual representations of Africa’s diverse and complex experiences, and the symbolism they employ acts as the key to unlock the layers of meaning within them.

Identity and cultural heritage are intertwined with symbolism in these films. From traditional clothing to scarification, they highlight the importance of preserving cultural roots and traditions in the face of globalization and modernization. These symbols serve as an evidence of the resilience of African cultures.

The legacy of colonialism is an ever-present theme in African cinema. The architectural remnants and language used in these films serve as potent symbols of the enduring impact of colonial rule. They reveal the struggle for liberation, sovereignty, and the reclamation of African identities.

Spiritual and mythological symbolism takes us into the realm of the metaphysical, connecting the living with their ancestors and portraying universal themes of wisdom, spirituality, and the eternal cycle of life. Animal symbols add layers of meaning, representing human characteristics and dilemmas.

Gender roles and empowerment are explored through the symbolism of hair, traditional roles, and feminism, offering a glimpse into the evolving dynamics of African societies. These symbols reflect the ongoing pursuit of gender equality.

In the political and social sphere, weapons and rivers symbolize the struggle for freedom and the ever-changing tides of history. These symbols highlight the complexities of political landscapes and the resilience of African societies in the face of adversity.

Osuofia in London by Kingsley Ogoro

Finally, music and dance, deeply ingrained in African cultures, symbolize community, unity, and cultural expression. They serve as bridges between different cultures and peoples, fostering a sense of shared identity and purpose.


Classic African films are a treasure trove of symbolism, representing the multifaceted stories and experiences of a continent rich in diversity and history. These symbols transcend the screen, serving as windows into the complexities of African societies. African cinema continues to evolve and provide a vital platform for cultural expression and storytelling, ensuring that these symbols will remain essential in understanding the past, present, and future of the African continent. The symbolism within these films not only honors Africa’s artistic and cinematic achievements but also its enduring impact on global culture and society.

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