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British African Stories

Stories of colonial and post-colonial Africa

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Given Africa's importance to the British Empire at the end of the nineteenth century, it is not surprising that the continent has been represented on screen since the early days of British filmmaking. One of the earliest films, Savage South Africa - Savage Attack And Repulse (Warwick Trading Company, 1899), at just over a minute long, is a dramatic re-enactment of an event from the contemporary Matabele wars between African natives and British infantry. Though filmed in London, the African performers were from South Africa, originally brought over for a British Empire exhibition at Earl's Court.

Travelogues and actuality films made by companies like British Instructional Films (Empire Series, 1925) and Pathé Pictures (African Native Tribe, 1931) were very popular with audiences keen to experience the vicarious thrills of life in wild and exotic Africa. The producers sold the films on their realism and authentic portrayals of African life.

Colonial Africa was used as a backdrop to adventure stories and melodramas. Stock characters were the heroic foreign office civil servant (known as District Officers), beleaguered doctors fighting superstition as well as disease, and the anti-heroic, fortune-seeking prospector. Love interest was supplied by missionaries and nurses. Interestingly, considering that Africa was disputed territory, British films were rarely interested in representing other colonisers such as the French, Portuguese or Italians.

An early narrative film was She (d. Will Barker, 1916), an African-set fantasy based on the Rider Haggard story. A longer, feature length version was made in 1925, produced by G.B. Samuelson, who set several films in Africa, including Love in The Wilderness (d. Alexander Butler, 1920) and If Youth But Knew (d. George A Cooper, 1926). Palaver (d. Geoffrey Barkas, 1929) was unusual in that it gave significant speaking roles to native Africans, while White Cargo (d. G.B. Williams, 1926), about a younger son setting off to work on a rubber plantation in West Africa, is recorded among the first British sound features.

By the 1930s, Africa was a popular backdrop to melodramas and action-adventure pictures. The Africa of the public imagination in the early twentieth century had been created by the novels of H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Wallace, Joyce Cary and Rudyard Kipling. These authors had spent time in the colonies either as children or as civil servants and for the most part supported the colonial ambitions of the British Empire. The films that emerged from their novels were stirring epics effectively designed to impress the audience with the scale of the Empire and to rally young men to seek their fortune in the territories whether as prospectors or civil servants. Unsurprisingly the natives were generally portrayed as primitive, superstitious and warlike.

However, during the mid-1930s and 1940s there was a major shift in the representation of British Africa, with a number of films released that not only featured but, to a greater or lesser extent, were about black people's experience. Paul Robeson, a key figure in screen drama of the period, starred in four films in or about Africa. Sanders of the River (d. Zoltan Korda, 1935), an unedifying film based on a collection of stories by Edgar Wallace (and the first of a series of Empire-set films from Alexander Korda's London Films, including the Sudan-set adventure The Four Feathers (1939)) was Robeson's first mainstream British film. Later he starred in Song of Freedom (d. J. Elder Willis, 1936), Jericho (d. Thornton Freedland, 1937) and King Solomon's Mines (d. Robert Stevenson, 1937). Song of Freedom is extraordinary for its matter-of-fact representation of a romantic black couple and for the way it gives voice to the yearning of a British-born Black man to find his ancestral homeland in Africa.

Robert Adams, who had appeared in many Robeson films, was offered several leading roles in the 1930s and 1940s (including Carol Reed's first film as sole director, Midshipman Easy, in 1934), culminating in his most famous role as Kisenga in Men of Two Worlds (d. Thorold Dickinson, 1946). This film, like Sanders of the River, caused consternation among black audiences and white intellectuals because of its fundamentally retrograde presentation of Africa as a land dominated by witch doctors and superstition. By the end of the 1940s, audiences were expecting a more sophisticated view of Africa.

War stories set in Africa were popular topics for filmmakers and audiences. The period was also marked by a shifting point of view that portrayed the struggles for self-determination of the African countries. In The African Queen (d. John Huston, 1951), the romance between a boozy steamboat captain and the prim sister of a missionary is played out against the backdrop of the First World War in British East Africa, from which Africans are entirely absent. The following year, Zoltan Korda's Cry, The Beloved Country (1952), starring American actors Canada Lee and Sidney Poitier, alerted mainstream cinema audiences to the human tragedies created by South Africa's apartheid regime.

Documentary filmmaker Cyril Frankel's Man of Africa (1953), a feature-length film about the migration of a Ugandan tribe, was more interested in their relations with other tribes rather than their colonial rulers, and Naked Earth (d. Vincent Sherman 1957), set at the end of the nineteenth century, was a story of how an Irishman travels to Africa and becomes positively involved in the lives of the natives.

Jungle epics and stories about big game hunters were still immensely popular at the box office - for instance, The Adventurers (1950) and Safari (1956) - but other films tried to present a more textured view of African life. Earl Cameron's trademark presentation of the dignified, intelligent and responsible black character brought sensitivity to several stories set in Africa. Films such as Simba (1955), set during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, and Guns at Batasi (1964) combined storylines about the struggle for independence and emotional conflict between Africans that emphasised their humanity. Children's films Toto and The Poachers (1957) and the quest movie Sammy Going South (1963) were also set in Africa, proof perhaps that the continent was leaving its dark and fearful reputation behind. On the other hand, the biggest African-set film of the 1960s, Zulu (1964), if not as jingoistic as the 1930s Korda epics, presented a distinctly one-sided view of the late-nineteenth century Zulu wars, while Carry on Up the Jungle (1970), was anything but progressive.

In the 1960s, actors like the Lagos-born Orlando Martins and South African Lionel Ngakane were making marks on the cultural landscape. Ngakane's first film Jemima and Johnny (1966), only the second film to be made by a black person in Britain, was critically applauded around the world.

African themes were less popular in the succeeding decades, although 1987's Cry Freedom (US/UK) and A World Apart (UK/Zimbabwe) were among a handful of international films investigating apartheid in South Africa. The Black workshops of the 1980s, like Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa, typically had more domestic concerns, though John Akomfrah's Testament (1988) was a lyrical portrait of a Ghanaian TV presenter returning to her native country after two decades in exile. More recently, the highly-praised Hotel Rwanda (2004) looked unflinchingly at the East African country's bloody Hutu/Tutsi conflict of 1994.

Ann Ogidi

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Cry, The Beloved Country (1952)Cry, The Beloved Country (1952)

South African drama about a black man accused of killing a white one

Thumbnail image of Diamond City (1949)Diamond City (1949)

Lively British 'Western' set in South Africa's diamond fields

Thumbnail image of Feet of Song (1988)Feet of Song (1988)

Animation by Erica Russell based on African dance rhythms

Thumbnail image of First Born, The (1928)First Born, The (1928)

Society drama about a politician, his wife and her adopted illegitimate child

Thumbnail image of Four Feathers, The (1939)Four Feathers, The (1939)

Lavish Technicolor costume epic about an alleged coward fighting in the Sudan

Thumbnail image of King Solomon's Mines (1937)King Solomon's Mines (1937)

Empire adventure about the hunt for legendary African diamond mines

Thumbnail image of Last Rhino, The (1961)Last Rhino, The (1961)

Safari adventure in which two children save a rhino from hunters

Thumbnail image of Men of Africa (1940)Men of Africa (1940)

Documentary outlining the work of the Colonial Office in East Africa

Thumbnail image of Men of Two Worlds (1946)Men of Two Worlds (1946)

An African music student returns home to save his tribe

Thumbnail image of Nionga (1925)Nionga (1925)

Unusually early drama of tribal life in Central Africa

Thumbnail image of Nor The Moon By Night (1958)Nor The Moon By Night (1958)

Africa-set drama about two brothers and a troublesome girlfriend

Thumbnail image of Old Bones of the River (1938)Old Bones of the River (1938)

Will Hay comedy about an African colonial administrator

Thumbnail image of Palaver (1926)Palaver (1926)

Romance set in Colonial Nigeria

Thumbnail image of Red Sea to Blue Nile (1926)Red Sea to Blue Nile (1926)

Fascinating record of explorer Rosita Forbes' journey across Ethiopia

Thumbnail image of Sammy Going South (1963)Sammy Going South (1963)

Alexander Mackendrick's film of a young boy's epic journey across Africa

Thumbnail image of Sanders of the River (1935)Sanders of the River (1935)

The first of Korda's British colonial epics, disowned by its star

Thumbnail image of Savage South Africa - Savage Attack and Repulse (1899)Savage South Africa - Savage Attack and Repulse (1899)

One of the earliest British films depicting genuine Africans

Thumbnail image of Simba (1955)Simba (1955)

Love story set amidst the Mau Mau's uprisings in Kenya

Thumbnail image of Song of Freedom (1936)Song of Freedom (1936)

Paul Robeson stars as a London docker who discovers his African royal lineage

Thumbnail image of Stampede (1930)Stampede (1930)

Story of a nomadic tribe seeking water in North Africa

Thumbnail image of West of Zanzibar (1954)West of Zanzibar (1954)

African adventure - a sequel to Ealing's Where No Vultures Fly

Thumbnail image of Where No Vultures Fly (1951)Where No Vultures Fly (1951)

Spectacular Technicolor African safari drama from Ealing Studios

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Thumbnail image of Cameron, Earl (1917- )Cameron, Earl (1917- )


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Thumbnail image of Robeson, Paul (1898-1976)Robeson, Paul (1898-1976)

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