In the trivia section of the IMDb profile of the film Sanders of the River (1935) lies this nugget “Jomo Kenyatta, who was President of Kenya from 1963 to 1978, had a bit part in this movie as a tribal chief.” It was a 6-minute role he never talked about, and with good reason.
The film, Sanders of the River, is based on Edgar Wallace’s story from 1911. The story follows Lord Sandi, a colonial-era British District Commissioner in Nigeria, and his African ally, Bosambo. Sanders is a patronizing figure, portrayed as the glue that holds the communities from tearing each other apart. When he goes on leave, his relief, Lord Ferguson, fails to maintain the peace.
The rival King Mofolaba promptly raids Bosambo’s people and kidnaps his wife. Bosambo is also kidnaped, and the communities go back to their old ways of raiding each other. Peace only returns after the fatherly Sanders comes back and commands a relief force. Sanders and the colonial British order are clearly the winners at the end of the film.
When Sanders is going on leave, between the 34th-40th minutes of the 90-minute long film, a tall African man stands next to Bosambo. That man is clearly a middle-aged Kenyatta, the future first president of Kenya and father to the current president. He was on his prolonged stay in Britain and was probably broke and looking for work.
Kenyatta, then about 45 years old, probably knew about the project through Robeson, an African-American immigrant. They most likely met in London’s black community, and an excited Robeson roped in his new friend to the film project. Kenyatta got a rather simple role as an extra. All he had to do was wear tribal clothing and stand next to Bosambo, Robeson’s character, for a single scene. He maintains a serious face throughout the six minutes he is visible, as he is portraying an African chieftain loyal to Sander’s lackey, Bosambo.
After his cameo appearance, Kenyatta presented the director with an inscribed silver cigarette case, ostensibly as a token of thanks. But he had misunderstood what kind of film they were making. So had Robeson.
The movie was released on 8th April, 1935 and was the first of four films producer Alexander Korda would make in a span of four years. It was also the first film the three Korda brothers, Alexander as producer, Zoltan as director and Vincent as art director, worked on together.
The Kordas were Hungarian immigrants living in London. Alex had a left-wing past that had led to his imprisonment in 1918. By the early 1930s, he had moved to Britain and was now a Tory. His film clearly celebrates the British colonial cause for the natives “governed and protected by a handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency.”
The book itself is clearly more patronizing than anything else, with Commissioner Sanders ruling the West Africans like a father, a strict one nonetheless. He is the center of the universe for them, such that his period of leave gives them the freedom to plunder. The film made no effort to correct this and even built its entire storyline around it.
Zoltan had gone on an extended trip to Africa in 1933 to obtain material for the film. On the trip, he acquired a deep appreciation of West African cultures. Alex, as the producer, had the final say on what made it to the final cuts of the film.
Alfred Hitchcock, who avid moviegoers will recognize as the famous Master of Suspense, was one of the initial directors on the project. He directed the earliest cuts of the film Wings of the Jungle, which was later changed to Sanders of the River.
Robeson was so disconcerted by the film that he tried to buy back all the film prints when the it was released in 1934. Despite his training as a lawyer, he most likely never fully read the script or even the book the film was based on. His character’s name in the film, Bosambo, is a rather obvious amalgamation of Boy Sambo. Colonial overlords called their African servants boys even where they were older than their fathers. It was a patronizing term, meant to ensure the colonized knew his place in the hierarchy.
Robeson had escaped America’s blatant racism in 1930 in search of opportunities and had ended up in a film that promoted a paternalistic attitude towards black people. His peers, the likes of Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, gave him no peace about his role in the film.
It is likely the two civil rights activists thought participating in the film would help erode stereotypes about black people. They were wrong, as the film did the opposite. The first five minutes make it clear who the movie is made for, and that its actual purpose is to validate the notion that Britons were civilizing Africa.
The lead role haunted Robeson for his entire career and blotted his legacy. Kenyatta seems to have chosen to forget about it. He became Kenya’s first president three decades later, and never acknowledged his brief on-screen role as a tribal chief.
One Story is good
till Another is told.