Sex, sexuality and spirituality have been and still are popular themes in series and movies, but today this is more geared towards the banner of inclusivity. None portray that trio in such a visceral, representative and nuanced way than that of season one of the cult series American Gods.
There’s one scene where two Muslim men of colour, one of whom is a Jinn, have sex that takes the viewer from clothes dropping to climax, and expresses a sense of belonging and comfort for two immigrants in America. Then there’s the woman of colour – a love goddess – who has sex with various partners while consuming them wholly, at climax, through her vagina.
Both scenes tell the story of a spiritual being living among humans trying to survive in a world that has cast them aside for no other reason than forgetfulness. But it’s so much more than just sex and gods says Yetide Badaki, who plays the love goddess Bilquis in the series.
“We never realise how important it is to see ourselves represented [on screen] until we see a moment we haven’t seen before, and it can get quite emotional. It reinforces that we are here and we are people; we’re part of this planet,” Badaki tells City Press on the sidelines of Africa’s first Comic Con this weekend. Together with her American Gods co-stars, Ricky Whittle and Demore Barnes, as well as The Big Bang Theory’s Kevin Sussman, Badaki headlined the three-day event.
“We’ve seen it for ages of people that are not of colour [having sex on-screen] and so it almost says that it’s acceptable for one group of people and not for another.”
Badaki said she’s been overwhelmed and pleasantly surprised by the reaction her character has garnered, especially in Africa and the other parts of the world that she would not have expected.
“It’s a lot of women that reach out; women from a lot of different cultures around the world that I, again, not necessarily thought I would get that reaction from, and it’s always an attitude of gratitude.”
Playing Bilquis, who was once the legendary Queen of Sheba in Yemen, was a journey of discovery for Badaki in that she doesn’t see herself as a love goddess (“obviously”), but that she realised the parallels of vulnerability between Yetide and “Bliquis – in this day and age living in a time that is far removed from where she started. I started to realise how vulnerable an individual like that could actually be.”
The Nigerian-born actress says that this vulnerability helped her portray the character with a much more focused intensity, which was well received.
“I had to look at my attitudes towards sexuality and what it meant to me and I think that resonated with people. I think there was a joy, there was a power to being able to own that part of myself.”
Wearing a floral dress of yellow, white and green on a black background; feather ear rings; an opal shaped ring and a brown wide-brimmed sun hat while sitting on a white couch, the soft-spoken actress talks passionately – and with intensity in her eyes – about representation and the “incredible” importance of Comic Con Africa.
Gallery: Cosplay at Africa's first Comic Con
“There are so many different ideas of what Africa is and there are a lot of misconceptions of what it is, and to see it reflected back to people that look like me, that enjoy the things that I do and to realise that we are not alone in our passions and the choices that we’ve forged, I think that it’s very important,” the self-described geek says.
Zodwa’s Hollywood journey to Wonderland
Considering the sold-out success of Comic Con Africa and the fact that there is a huge market for people of colour to revel in the glorious worlds of fandoms, it took almost five years to set up this first Comic Con on African soil. Sometimes the wheels of change take a long time to grind together and one of the best ways to see results in what you are passionate about is to do it yourself.
This is Badaki's attitude and to that end she has penned – and stars in – a short-film called Wonderland that is loosely based on Alice in Wonderland – and Badaki's own experiences in Hollywood. Set within the backdrop of the film industry, Wonderland follows actress Zodwa as she navigates the industry with its many funny and over-the-top characters.
Badaki said that she saw a cut from the film this weekend and got “a little emotional”.
“I had never seen that version of a person of colour on screen and it was powerful. Someone that got to go through her heroine’s journey in that particular way. Yes, I intended to include more representation but even myself I did not realise how powerful it would be to see that on the screen.”
Asking about the name Zodwa, Badaki laughed and said that it was indeed a South Africa-inspired name. Names like Yetide or Zodwa are not common for actresses and that’s what got her thinking of how sometimes names are changed to “something more – quote, unquote – palatable or easier to say.”
“I wanted to have that conversation with the name of the main character. I also wanted to root it in Africa because that’s who I am. The meaning, which I believe means: “only women”, I found that to be a happy accident because we are looking the treatment of women in the industry as well.”
Wonderland has been submitted to film festivals, and Badaki says that we should start seeing it before the end of the year.
The power of dreams
A hardcore Trekkie, Badaki says that one of her first crushes was Captain Picard from Star Trek (“but I have no beef with Star Wars, as long as we get more science-fiction I am happy,” she laughs) because “one of the things I love so much was that we saw all kinds of people and on Next Generation, what I loved even more, was that we saw on-screen representation of the future where we were ok.”
This love with fiction and storytelling, she says, stems from the “stories by the fire as a child and the elders telling stories. I was just blown away by all these different worlds all these characters.”
Badaki sought and consumed everything and anything she could on mythology to science-fiction to fantasy worlds and to gods and goddesses.
She eventually became a huge fan of Neil Gaiman, the creator of American Gods, before she joined the cast and when asked about her first meeting with him, the same giddy expression witnessed by fans who saw her on stage at Comic Con was clearly visible on Badaki's face.
“I could dream of [meeting Gaiman] but I did not think it would have been possible. This is why I continue to say that it is important to dream.”
And dream she does, especially in terms of using her goddess status to propel the cultural shift that is so necessary in today’s content-driven industry.
“I will always want to continue to act, but I also want to be behind the camera. I want to direct. I want to write more. I am producing but I want to produce more. I also want my own production company – one that creates content, acquires content and that distributes it. In doing so I am really interested in bringing together the diaspora. I want to see more of Hollywood in Nollywood and vice versa. I want to see more collaboration between what is happening in Hollywood and the many incredible resources that are available in Africa. I want to be a part of bringing Africa to the forefront of the screen. So that’s the future that I am envisioning.”
What a future that would be!