3 November 2015 | EdgarST
Mutiny on the Esperanza
When I was 7 years old I saw the ads of «Tamango» in the press and posters in cinemas as I passed them by, but when I was old enough to see it (it was classified "for adults only") it had vanished from sight. Now that I finally watched it, when it was finished I was in awe. What a good film! Of course it does help that the final 10 minutes are simultaneously tense and poetic leading to a highly dramatic ending. But six decades after its original release, it is still a motion picture of strong content and great visual impact (although the copy I saw is not in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the colors have faded). Released in 1958 it is an adaptation of Prosper Mérimée's 1829 homonymous novella (before he wrote his most famous «Carmen»). Significant changes were made for this screen version, but the final plot is also set in the early 19th century. In the coast of Guinea, warrior Tamango (Alex Cressan) and a sizable group of men and women have been sold to Reinker, a Dutch slave trader (Curt Jürgens) and they board the ship Esperanza that sets sails to Cuba, where they will be sold again, this time in the slave market. On route the violent conflict between the Caucasian sailors and the black slaves intensifies, the interracial sexual liaison between Reinker and a beautiful African woman named Ayché (Dorothy Dandridge) breaks, and Tamango leads a mutiny against the slavers. In the final script that went through significant re-writing due to Dandridge's insistence (who also refused to wear costumes that were offensive to the African woman, as designed by a Parisian designer), Ayché and Tamango are no longer lovers, he does not sell her but the two are victimized, and instead of surviving in Kingston the warrior fights until the end. These script changes turn Tamango and Ayché into icons of racial struggle, while the sincere, intense passion Reinker feels for Ayché is one of the first screen recognitions of many Europeans' love or lust for Africans. In the time it was made «Tamango» must have been some kind of a political and educational «audiovisual pamphlet», invaluable for those who were involved in the fight for the civil rights of Afro-descendants in the United States and elsewhere. No wonder it was banned in a few countries, and surely not only for the Reinker-Ayché relationship. I saw the English-spoken version: it becomes a bit hard in the first scenes to accept Dandridge as an African girl, with her American accent, but one gets used to it and thankfully she only has the necessary dialogue. Cressan, a medical student from Martinique that only made this film, is a magnificent emblem of African male beauty; and Jürgens, as usual, is fine as the villain with a soft heart. Director Berry was black-listed during the witch-hunting craze led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and, after directing the cult film «He Ran All the Way», he went to Europe as Joseph Losey, Cy Endfield and Charles Chaplin. Berry also directed the romantic comedy «Claudine» about a couple of African-American workers, but he remained in France until his death.