Synopsis: British District Officer in Nigeria in the 1930’s rules his area strictly but justly, and struggles with gun-runners and slavers with the aid of a loyal native chief.
Directed by: Zoltan Korda
Written by: Lajos Biró (adaptation); Jeffrey Dell (adaptation); Edgar Wallace (story); Arthur Wimperis (additional dialogue)
Stars: Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks and Nina Mae McKinney
Serious Jest: (Cruel & Unusual Punishment) Having grown up close to Rutgers University, being a college football fan (although not a Scarlet Knights fan–Go Canes!!!), having taken a college course about African-Americans in film, and just being a minority, I knew who Paul Robeson was, generally, but had never actually watched one of his films. As soon as he stepped on the screen, I understood why he was the preeminent black actor of his time. This man radiated charisma, intelligence, music, and just overall talent. For some moments in the film, Mr. Robeson made me forget the awful paternalistic and imperialistic message that permeated this film, and simply enjoy his performance.
But that message was pretty damn pungent, and hard to ignore. The film begins with a written dedication to “the handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency,” referring to the British Commissioners and their staff stationed in Africa to rule over the various “Districts.” Notably, guns and alcohol were strictly forbidden to the Commissioner’s “black children,” while all of the Commissioner’s staff had guns, and alcohol in the U.K. has never been outlawed–I guess the white “fathers” and “mothers” are grown up enough to handle those temptations. Basically, the plot of the this film is that Africa deteriorates from a wonderful, exotic place into a savage bloodbath as soon as its benevolent white master goes on vacation.
While watching this film, I was ready to give it 2 Mugs (instead of 1) for: (1) its value as an outstanding performance by Mr. Robeson; (2) some cool shots of Africa (some of which were actually shot in England, and some others which featured wildlife from the east coast of Africa, rather than Nigeria, in which the film was supposedly set); (3) some pretty cool musical and cultural dance scenes (a film crew went on a four-month voyage into remote areas of Africa to record traditional African dances and ceremonies, and some of that footage was interwoven into the film); and (4) one of the few positive aspects of the plot, in that the Commissioner and Robeson’s character, “Bosambo” (hmm…), were attempting to stop the African “Old King” from enslaving other tribes. I was ready to chalk up the racism in this film as inherent to the times, and call this one bearable. I thought to myself what a shame it was that incredibly talented black actors like Mr. Robeson or Sidney Poitier had to take on roles in these sorts of movies in order to pave the way for true black leading men like Denzel Washington.
Then I read the Wikipedia article about this movie. This may be the only time I’ve downgraded a movie based on the history of its making. As if it wasn’t bad enough that black actors in 1935 had limited roles, it appears that the studio here tricked Mr. Robeson into making an imperialist propoganda film by convincing him that he would be portraying a noble African leader and bringing positive aspects of African culture to mass audiences. So, it turns out the movie’s only saving grace was conned into taking part in the film. After realizing what the final edits were like, Mr. Robeson stated, “”The imperialist plot had been placed in the plot during the last days five days of shooting…I was roped into the picture because I wanted to portray the culture of the African people and I committed a faux pas which convinced me that I had failed to weigh the problems of 150,000,000 native Africans…I hate the picture.” In 1938, he also added, “It is the only film of mine that can be shown in Italy or Germany, for it shows the negro as Fascist states desire him – savage and childish.”
I actually thought about not providing a link to this movie, even though it can be found for free on the Internet Archive (which I linked to through IMDB), but I’m also pretty sure that the makers aren’t getting paid off it anymore, so if you want to see an example of racism in 1935 movies, click here. I also recommend checking out Mr. Robeson’s bio on IMDB and Wikipedia. He was a truly remarkable person: Rutgers’ first All-American football player (he also lettered in baseball, basketball, and track & field), and class of 1919 Valedictorian, who played pro football to pay for his Columbia University law degree, although he gave up his law career to pursue acting and singing, from which he was later forced when he chose to champion civil rights. I was saddened to learn that his outspoken efforts on behalf of civil rights & racial equality pitted him head-to-head against certain forces in America that did not share his goals, resulting in him being blacklisted (including having his movies, musical performances, & media appearances removed from mainstream accessibility), attempting suicide, and living out his later years in isolation.
Another great example of a great black actor whose career was unfairly stifled in those times was Nina Mae McKinney, the female lead in this movie. She was arguably the first African-American female lead in a mainstream movie release (although that movie, Hallelujah!, featured an all-black cast). Her mixed-race features were representative of those that Hollywood would later feature as acceptable for white audiences, but as mentioned above, there were limited spots for these roles: McKinney was supposed to star in The Duke is Tops, but fell ill, and Lena Horne was given the role, which launched her career, while McKinney later fell into obscurity. McKinney’s short bios on Wikipedia and IMDB are also worth reading.