Sidney Poitier and Capitalist Decolonization

Poitier is a pioneer in Hollywood (the first black male actor to win an Oscar), but, like in most of his US acting roles, he also played it safe in African roles he took on.

Sidney Poitier in 1963. Image Wiki Commons.

Sidney Poitier, who turned 92 on Wednesday, February 20, 2019, once complained about “all those dumb-ass Tarzan movies,” but the films that he made on the African continent—many of them committed to promoting a conciliatory, emphatically capitalist decolonization process—may be even more insidious. These include the films Cry, the Beloved Country (1952), set in apartheid South Africa; The Mark of the Hawk (1957), set in an unnamed African country; Something of Value (1957), also known as Africa Ablaze and set in colonial Kenya; and Mandela and de Klerk (1997), about political negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa.

The British-American-Nigerian co-production The Mark of the Hawk (Michael Audley, 1957) is perhaps the most striking. Starring Poitier and Eartha Kitt, it was largely shot on location in Nigeria. The film depicts an African revolution that is ultimately suppressed, its passions redirected by an American missionary (played by John McIntire), who proposes that nation building proceed “within the framework of the Christian church.” Unsurprisingly, the missionary prescribes “patient faith” in place of violent revolt, and his Christian paternalism puts an end to an anti-colonial uprising that, in his view, is “moving too fast.”

Though made in Nigeria and eventually acquired by Universal-International for distribution to the country (as well as to Europe and the United States, among other global markets), The Mark of the Hawk is set in an unnamed British colony “somewhere in Africa”; it therefore strategically subsumes a Nigerian specificity, which nevertheless remains eminently recognizable in the film’s many exteriors, under an abstracted Africanity whose marketability remains pronounced (as films from Kim Nguyen’s War Witch to Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation attest)—precisely the sort of racialized placelessness parodied in Keenan Ivory Wayans’s I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), set in “Any Ghetto U.S.A.” (The 2016 Nollywood film Couple of Days offers its own, equally satirical spin on this device, superimposing the words “Somewhere in Lagos” over aerial shots of what is clearly Victoria Island.) It would, however, be a mistake to attribute such vagueness to racism or ethnocentric ignorance alone. When The Mark of the Hawk was made, the “most basic foreign policy” of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) “was to avoid giving offence to any country which provided the [Hollywood] industry with any revenue,” however meager. Explicitly identifying Nigeria was thus out of the question for a “political” production that, though made at the tail end of formal imperial rule and in the wake of Ghana’s independence, could not risk offending either a colonial government (which, in 1957, could easily have prevented the film’s exhibition in Nigeria) or its counterpart in the metropole.

In The Mark of the Hawk, the African characters are said to “speak African,” and a workers’ revolt, however evocative of actual Nigerian labor movements, is carefully tailored to reflect the sort of generalized, deracinated anti-colonial sentiments seen in the exactly contemporaneous Harry Belafonte film Island in the Sun (Robert Rossen, 1957), which is set on the fictional island of Santa Marta (“just Jamaica with the name changed,” Belafonte called it), and whose plot pivots around the efforts of “colored natives” to claim capitalism—formerly the exclusive preserve of white plantation owners—for themselves. Island in the Sun opens in the manner of a travelogue, with a tutelary voice narrating images of Grenada (standing in for the fictional Santa Marta). “Its main industry,” says the voice on the soundtrack, “is raising sugar, copper, cocoa—and exporting them. Originally a French island, its laborers were brought in slave ships from the Gold Coast of Africa, four and a half centuries ago, and now it is a British crown colony.” The voice, it turns out, belongs to the colonial governor, Lord Templeton (Ronald Squire), who endeavors to instruct a visiting American journalist on the subject of empire. “Do you think the West Indian is ready to govern himself?” asks the journalist. “When you get to know the island better,” replies the governor, “I shall be glad to discuss it with you.”

Lord Templeton is particularly fond of Harry Belafonte’s character, David Boyeur, the leader of a local trade union, whom Templeton affectionate calls “our home-grown revolutionary.” That Templeton is so enamored of alleged revolution—so chummy with the passionate activist Boyeur (who says of the governor, “He needs me more than I need him”)—indicates his acceptance not merely of the inevitability of political independence for Santa Marta but also of decolonization as involving little more than a “color shift” under capitalism, a movement of black toward white in the shared pursuit of private accumulation. “True independence,” Templeton suggests, is “merely” a matter of “the natives” becoming properly capitalist, having absorbed the lessons of their “masters.” Boyeur agrees, albeit with more “fire” than the tired old colonialist can muster.

Described by one white observer as “a man with real power,” Boyeur is committed to fighting not private accumulation but the “ignorant” forces that might prevent its extension to those of African descent. Invoking non-capitalist African economies, which militate against individual acquisition and assign redistributive duties amid concern for “the community,” Boyeur raises the specter of communism as a menace to newly independent countries—an ideology and a political system that would “shackle” Black people no less forcefully than colonialism, precisely by preventing them from pursuing personal enrichment. Non-capitalist African economies—brought to Santa Marta in the memories of the enslaved, but foreclosed by the colonial system—threaten a return of the repressed, the revivification of a tradition vulnerable to communist takeover. Boyeur’s activism, then, is focused not on honoring and reestablishing tradition but on jettisoning it in the name of market ideology. “One of the most important fights,” he declares, “is against tradition—this island is shackled with traditions!” Boyeur may complain about the conditions of those “working like beasts” in the cane fields, but he is unprepared to concede—and seemingly unaware of the fact—that capitalism is the culprit, and not simply the cruelties of individual plantation owners. Asked to identify the island’s most pressing problem, Boyeur replies, “Color.” As in The Mark of the Hawk, capitalism is not to blame; instead, “the real issue” is the colonialist refusal to permit the formerly enslaved to compete for its profits. Rather than being allowed to pursue individual acquisition, these subjugated “darkies” are lucky to benefit from occasional acts of colonial largesse—mere “charity” (a concept that Boyeur despises, prescribing “equality of opportunity” under capitalism as its righteous alternative).

Island in the Sun is steeped in the proto-neoliberal language of individual responsibility: the colonial system must be replaced because it permits so many individual failures (of leadership, of conscience), and not because it serves to organize extractive capitalism at the explicit expense of community development. According to the film’s logic, colonialism’s principal fault is that it is hostile to the free market, its protectionist policies preventing the infiltration of American capital—an infiltration that, the film contends, would mean the enrichment of the “native” population. The message could not be clearer—or more clearly geared to reflect Hollywood’s own globalizing interests: colonialism must make way for the free market, a fundamentalist precept easily (if disingenuously and distractingly) couched in the language of racial equality. It is no accident that the one film said to be playing on the island of Santa Marta in 1957—Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948)—is a British import from the previous decade. The removal of colonialist protectionism will therefore mean, among other things, the replacement of such “outdated” nationalist fare with the sort of big-budget, narratively and iconographically transnational spectacles that Hollywood’s Island in the Sun—in Cinemascope and Technicolor, no less—represents.

For its part, Poitier’s The Mark of the Hawk frequently stages debates between two representatives of empire, both of whom recognize the inevitability of independence but disagree about the character of the colonized. “We have no business making judgments—we’re newcomers here,” says one of these white men, while the other insists that the “whole trouble” with colonized Africans “is that they don’t appreciate what’s been done for them.” Some argue that the Christian church has instilled anti-capitalist beliefs (“the poverty of mankind before God,” and so on), but the American missionary insists that this isn’t the case—that the church wants merely to see the privileges of the free market, of private enterprise and possessive individualism, extend to formerly subjugated Africans. “My church has taught the African Christians to hope for social justice,” he says, “while my white western world has kept it from them.” In his reading, however, “social justice” refers primarily to equality under capitalism—to late-colonial efforts to ensure that the material and symbolic gains of an extractive, profit-seeking system will be open to Blacks as well as to whites, who will then “compete” in a purportedly free market, unfettered by any colonial or otherwise paternalist restrictions.

Island in the Sun shares this stark racial binarism, while similarly couching anti-colonial sentiment as a “colored struggle” to achieve inclusion in capitalism—a process that cannot unfold “too fast” if true transracial harmony is to be achieved. Thus even as they stress the acceleration and intensification of globalizing capitalism at mid-century, both films prescribe “patience” to African and diasporic populations whose capitalist ambitions are nevertheless heartily endorsed.

MaryEllen Higgins has commented on the importance of viewing “Hollywood’s Africa not as a series of detached fantasies that offer pure entertainment, but as projections—entertaining as they may be—that reflect various national and international investments, both material and ideological.” Chinua Achebe may have been describing much of Poitier’s filmography when he referred critically to “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor…Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.”

As is well known, Achebe, in his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, endeavored to counter what he saw as Joyce Cary’s misrepresentation of Nigeria in Cary’s “African” novel Mister Johnson (1939). But he might also have been responding to The Mark of the Hawk, whose production in Nigeria coincided with the writing of Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s protagonist, Okonkwo, is not unlike Poitier’s character in The Mark of the Hawk: both men are “born leaders,” charismatic and idealistic, and their fates are equally entwined with the efforts of British colonialism to shape Nigeria and Nigerians in its own image. But where Okonkwo chooses violence (including self-destruction) as a rebuke to British rule—a victim, in Achebe’s tragic framework, of colonial modernity—Poitier’s character opts for Christianization, reverting to a “peaceful protest” of colonialism that doubles as an active embrace of American capitalism. Young’s script seems to understand the profoundly destabilizing potential of violence—its capacity not simply to subvert colonial rule but also to stave off the encroachment of capitalism. It is, quite simply, a socialist revolution that the American missionary must prevent in The Mark of the Hawk—a violent transfer of power from colonialists to anti-capitalists.

This normalization of capitalism is critiqued in a number of canonical African films. Consider, for instance, La Vie est Belle (Mwezé Ngangura and Benoît Lamy, 1987), in which a commitment to individual accumulation is taken to outrageous extremes by a Congolese landlady, Mama Dingari (Mazaza Mukoko), who raises rents arbitrarily and often. “This mama has a reputation for being greedy,” observes one of her tenants; “Life has become less beautiful,” says another, whenever Mama Dingari wields her extortionate power. And in Flora Gomes’ The Blue Eyes of Yonta (1991), “capitalist independence” represents a contradiction in terms, as Vicente (António Simão Mendes), revolutionary-turned-businessman, is forced to concede, “Money is the weapon now…We thought that independence would be for everyone, but it’s not.” He even speaks of an all-encompassing capitalism, ominously referring to the Atlantic Ocean as being “married to container ships.” Made in 1991—“the year of liberalization,” one character calls it, before a district-wide power outage eliminates the electrical supply to his classroom (a symptom of the cuts in public spending required by structural adjustment)—The Blue Eyes of Yonta makes clear some of the neocolonialist effects of the capitalist world-system. “First I loaded crates for the Portuguese,” says one character, an elderly fisherman, of his life under colonialism. “I was overjoyed at independence. I thought my life would change. But these crates and sacks are as heavy as the Portuguese ones.”

The 1957 release of Poitier’s The Mark of the Hawk heralded the hundred-year anniversary of the arrival of Anglican missionaries in Nigeria. The film’s conciliatory Christianity—like that of a number of Poitier’s other “African” dramas—would have to be countered by African directors in the post-independence period. In Guelwaar (1992), for instance, Ousmane Sembene provides an opposite view of Christianity from the one promoted by The Mark of the Hawk. Through a title character whose home is the site of political meetings at which Christians discuss “the misappropriation of foreign aid and how it ends up sold or distributed to party members,” as well as “the illegal accumulation of wealth and theft of public funds,” Guelwaar offers an implicit critique of an understudied title in Poitier’s contentious oeuvre.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.