In his feature film debut The Burial of Kojo, Blitz Bazawule tells a story of two brothers through the gaze of a gifted girl who travels between gorgeous lands that exist in life and death.
It’s not your ordinary narrative film, but a cinematic fable that is surreal, magical and infused with Afrofuturistic elements. Yes, it is complex and yes, it will probably make your brain bleed with its visual prowess, but Bazawule isn’t here to give you normal. He’s here to change the game while rattling your senses with a dose of global and inclusive storytelling. As Bazawule said, “Nobody cares about normal, right?”
The Burial of Kojo (which landed at Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY and is currently streaming on Netflix) is quite a marvel that flexes visual storytelling muscles that you didn’t know existed. It takes risks with unexpected camera work and off-center choices when it comes to pushing a narrative forward. The film may have a flair for the opulent, but through all of its sumptuousness, it’s grounded with a very personal story.
“I would say this film is connected to my personal introduction to storytelling — which is my grandmother’s story, Bazawule told Deadline. He said when he was young, he had moved to a new neighborhood where the power lines hadn’t been installed and there was no electricity. With no TV or form of electric media to entertain them, his grandmother would tell stories and he says she was the “queen” of that. “Her stories were so real,” he remembers. They were so real that they scared him — and they were very fantastical with talking animals.
“Somehow, they always had some moral and was always still rooted in the real world,” he said. This has been embedded with him since his youth. He said that if he would ever make a film, he would draw from his grandmother’s stories which he referred to as “an endless well of creativity.”
Born and raised in Accra, Ghana, Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule comes from a music background of Afrobeat, Jazz, Highlife and Motown. He moved stateside and attended Kent State University before heading to New York where his hip hop career began to flourish. He started a band called Embassy Ensemble and his own label, Embassy MVMT which pushed the genre forward. While he was making music, he always knew that a filmmaker was dying to come out.
“It’s always been something that I’ve wanted to do,” he said. “I come from visual arts — I draw. Those things are a gateway to understanding visual structure and colors. I always knew that at some point I would want to expand into motion pictures but it just didn’t seem plausible.”
Bazawule felt that his career was excelling in music so he stuck with it for eight years. After touring, recording and managing a seven-piece band, he wanted to expand his artistic muscles. He teamed with Terrence Nance (Random Acts of Flyness and the upcoming Space Jam sequel) for the 2011 short film Native Sun. In 2016, Bazawule went solo with Diasporadical Trilogia and from there he was ready for something even bigger. With his foray into feature filmmaking, Bazawule said that Nance, who also serves as a producer on The Burial of Kojo, was a set of training wheels for him.
“It was a great beginning because I learned so much from him just in terms of tenacity, voice and just being confident even when you’re wrong,” Bazawule said. “Going into The Burial of Kojo was a huge step because even with my shorts, they were music-based. They weren’t really scripted. The discipline of writing a hundred pages, storyboarding and all these things that you have to do to actually make a film — it was super challenging.”
Although it was challenging, he gave his team a pep talk and encouraged everyone to be brave with the camera. “We were going to do things that we knew will contribute to the canon, even if nobody likes it,” he said. “We can stand by it and say we’ve contributed something. It kind of brings the nerves down because you kind of brings the bar down.”
When Bazawule said “bring the bar down” he is only speaking metaphorically because the imagery of The Burial of Kojo is not only a rich fable but a labyrinth of visual storytelling that you will get lost in. One may see it as bonkers and wildly involved, but for Bazawule he figured that if he was to do a movie with his off-the-rails vision, he was going to go all-in and not look back.
“I call it the Outkast theory,” he said, referring to the hip hop duo of Andre 3000 and Big Boi. “They come out with Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik — back in the day, it’s so off the wall crazy and they set you up. They said, ‘Look, we’re always going to be crazy guys. One guy’s going to show up in the skirt and the blonde wig and the other one’s just going to be straight hood’ and you’re going to be like, ‘What’s going on here?’”
He continues, “I think that theory is how everybody should introduce themselves. It’s like, ‘Hello, I’m crazy’. Moving forward, you’re always going to know that something’s off and so then you’ve kind of given yourself the latitude. That’s kind of what we were attempting to do with The Burial of Kojo. We’re willing to do wild things. We are willing to flip frames and cut the story wherever we want.”
This goes back to what he said earlier: “Nobody cares about normal.” He openly admits that his story does not follow a normal structure. “It’s been claimed and it’s been reinforced consistently and it’s made a lot of money,” he points out. That said, he wants to shake things up with taking down the concept of a three-act structure, a protagonist, antagonist — he colors outside the lines. He refused to do something just because it has echoed around the world and has become the standard.
Bazawule wasn’t going to fall into the trap of first-time filmmakers who are trying to fit a mold and get stuck. He said that once you stay in a lane and attempt to do something different, people will immediately say, “Oh, he fell off.” For Bazawule, coming in with guns blazing sets a precedent and makes an impression that will last.
With stories like The Burial of Kojo, Bawazule not only stands out as a creator who disrupts the Hollywood status quo, but as an example of a creator from the fringes that has the ability to tell a story that has universal appeal and connects through its lush imagery — but he is cognizant that the visuals don’t consume the narrative. He makes sure that one assists the other and “all elements are balanced.”
Another element he injects into his debut is his perspective, which is a representation of his creativity and culture. The Burial of Kojo speaks to the importance of inclusive storytelling and how the person behind the camera is as important as the people in front of it. Although a narrative familial fable, The Burial of Kojo basks in a Ghanaian light and Bazawule points out that putting directors behind the camera who know and have lived the culture you are filming is important. They bring nuance and a point of view that others can’t — “it is ingrained in the way you do it.” It’s an instinct of authenticity that can’t be taught.
“That’s why it’s so important that representation matters — because the world’s only better if I come and show you this beautiful multilayer thing,” explains Bazawule. “Why would you want a knock-off, veneer version?”
Bazawule said that the industry is moving from this because underrepresented voices have made the decision that it is time to change — and he hopes to champion others who live in the margins. “This opportunity is such a special gift to us,” he said. “That opportunity requires lifting each other up and sending the ladder back down and allowing each one of us to express right or wrong.”
With The Burial of Kojo, Bazawule was out to give us something personal, different and a film that “peel the layers of story that is definitely seldom seen in African cinema.”
With that, Bazawule shared a Toni Morrison quote he lives by: “I stood on the edge, claimed it as central, and forced the world come to me.”
“That’s like life,” he said. “For me anywhere can be central if you claim it.”