I felt rather intensely disappointed at the end of Imba Means Sing, perhaps unfairly. Is it unfair to critique art on what it could be, rather than what it should be? But if we do not engage art critically by asking questions and challenging its hidden assumptions and biases then there is surely no reason for it to exist.
I didn’t take issue with the storytelling or editing, which was beautifully done. I didn’t struggle to find to message and purpose of Imba-it was quite clearly to draw attention to the poverty in Uganda and the empowerment of the children through the African Children’s Choir. I was also not necessarily disappointed by that message but, rather, by its myopia.
From the stark contrast between the Ugandan homes and the children’s American host families to the rhetoric of the program’s aunties and uncles, the film was entirely uncritical of the message of neo-liberal prosperity through consumption. It didn’t question how colonialism and capitalism had caused Uganda’s crippling poverty in the first place. It didn’t spend much time on the White Savior complex inherent in the sometimes sickeningly patronizing attitudes of the Western megachurches or even the concept of prosperity gospel and the connection Christianity has to neo-liberal economics.
It feels unfair to critique Imba for failing to address issues that were outside of its scope but its uncritical stance allows for the normalization of these socially structured problems and therefore fails to make a meaningful social change. I know that many, many people donated to the African Children’s Choir after watching Imba; I probably will too because, for all of its problematic aspects, it does fund the education of children in need. However, if Imba had been directly critical of capitalism, colonialism, and the dubious logic of prosperity gospel, perhaps some of those many, many people would have become aware of the hidden messages in this otherwise inspirational stories and done more to combat their root causes.