Docs That Rock

Alicia Keys: wonderful singer, humanitarian; so-so filmmaker

There’s a lot of things to admire about Alicia Keys and her documentary Alicia in Africa: Journey to the Motherland. Its always inspiring when a celebrity uses their unique platform for a worthy cause, as Alicia does with this film to raise money and awareness for HIV/AIDS. (More than 800,000 people have contributed at least $5 to the charity Keep A Child Alive.) She is at the forefront of new distribution tactics by putting her entire film online for free (streaming and download options) and using her American Idol appearance to promote it.

The only part of the strategy that’s wrong is the filmmaking! The 45 minute doc plays like the world’s longest public service announcement. Every interaction in this film is a monologue by Professor Keys to the camera. We meet aid workers, orphans and grandmothers taking care of children (whose parents had died of AIDS) but just just a moment until we’re on to the next scene or location. Keys hears stories of misery, but briefly. Later in the film, there is a roundtable of AIDS orphans where she asks questions like “What are your dreams?” We get quick answers but we never even learn the names of the children. There are a few singing and dancing scenes and Alicia only sings near the end.

Usually, the lack of celebrity time on the ground is the biggest impediment to making a good film. Keys spent one month in Africa yet the film feels like she jetted in and out. I wish there had been more moments of interaction with real people or more of a project she was building instead of just a surface tour of the projects she helped fund. A more intimate doc with Keys would be great if she would ever allow someone into her interior thoughts and/or her conflicted self or even angry self. Her voice does rise with a touch of indignation every now and then and you hope more arrives but it never does. She’s always right on message (she’d make a good politician).

The film is a real lost opportunity because Alicia Keys is beautiful and articulate. The film is also beautifully shot by director Earle Sebastian. There are some all-star landscape shots of Africa though the poverty may look a little too pretty in Soweto, Mombosa, Kampala. (Always a debate: does real suffering turn off potential donors? But aren’t pretty pictures of poverty contrary to the documentary tradition?)

Check out the film’s pretty impressive trailer below; the full film can be viewed at the Alicia in Africa website.


June 2, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. […] African music doc worth watching Right after trashing poor Alicia Keys’ film (though admiring greatly her efforts – read the last post!), I noticed that the slate of HBO […]

    Pingback by An African music doc worth watching « Docs That Rock | June 4, 2008 | Reply

  2. Alicia keys is a idol and im using her for my good citizens project in civics….there nothing really bad to say about her !!

    Comment by CHERISE | October 8, 2009 | Reply

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