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Movies on the grim subject of slavery have taken many forms, from D. W. Griffith's reactionary The Birth of a Nation in 1915 to Nate Parker's progressive The Birth of a Nation in 2016, with dramas as different as Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind (1939) and Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave (2013) in between. Tamango, a French-Italian co-production directed by John Berry and released with little notice in 1958, is one of the lesser-known explorations of the topic.
The relative obscurity of Tamango is surprising since several notable names are connected with it. The most celebrated is Dorothy Dandridge, the mixed-race actress and singer - she had Jamaican, Mexican and Native American ancestry - who had earned an Academy Award nomination for Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954) and a Golden Globe nomination for his Porgy and Bess in 1959. She stars in Tamango as Aiché, the captive and mistress of a slave-ship captain.
A second major name is John Berry, one of the Hollywood directors blacklisted for having communist associations in the 1950s, whereupon he moved to Europe and directed movies there - this one included - until returning to the United States when the blacklist crumbled in the 1960s. The third important name is Prosper Mérimée, the 19th century French author whose most famous story inspired Georges Gounod's opera Carmen and whose eponymous 1829 novella was the basis for Tamango.
All the action of Tamango takes place on the Esperanza, a Dutch slave ship taking its human cargo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1820. The captain is John Reinker, a Dutch sailor played by Curd Jurgens, then a rising star with pictures like Roger Vadim's ...And God Created Woman (1956) and Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory (1957) among his prior credits. Reinker has no interest in the slave trade beyond the money he can make transporting enslaved Africans from Guinea to Cuba, where they will be placed on the market and sold. By contrast, Reinker is very interested in Aiché, his mistress, played by Dandridge with a mixture of outward sultriness and inner rage. A third key character is Doctor Corot, the ship's physician tasked with keeping the prisoners healthy enough to survive the voyage in marketable condition. Unfortunately for Corot, he hates everything about his job - except the contact it gives him with Aiché, whom he adores but can't openly woo because she belongs to Captain Reinker, his superior.
And then there's the title character, Tamango, played by Alex Cressan in his only screen appearance. Tamango is the toughest, smartest and most rebellious of the imprisoned slaves. Like the other captives, though, he's in an impossible position - the slave runners have all the weapons and all the power, and as Aiché points out to him, even if the slaves overpowered the crew, there's no way the captain would turn the ship around and take them back to Africa as if nothing had happened.
In this hopeless situation, rage and frustration build without letup among the prisoners, sparking small acts of rebellion - an attempted hunger strike, an effort to steal a file and cut through their shackles - that result in defeat at best and death at worst, with troublemakers hanged from the highest mast to terrify the others. Tamango is the aspiring protector everyone turns to, including Aiché when the captain quarrels with her and banishes her to the cargo hold with the other slaves.
Facing the scarcity of roles habitually experienced by African-American actors, Dandridge was linked with the "tragic mulatto" stereotype through most of her movie career. The light-skinned Aiché fits right into this pattern, seeming irredeemably African to her white owner yet insulted as "white man's trash" by Tamango, who sees her submission to the captain as a sign of disloyalty to her race. That submission ultimately ends, thanks to the captain's deceitful offering of a "freedom" from slavery that she knows she'll never get, and the filmmakers use her newfound rebelliousness as a symbol for the self-destructiveness of the slave system itself.
The eventual mutiny of all the shipboard slaves is another such symbol, and here the screenwriters make a radical departure from Merimeé's novella, where Tamango is himself a black African slaver tricked into captivity when he boards the ship to recover Aiché after drunkenly selling her to the captain. The movie drastically changes Tamango, making him a natural-born leader who despises everything about slavery, thinks of others as much as he cares about himself, and becomes the ringleader and chief strategist of the captives, doing all he can to encourage the uprising that climaxes the picture. The ending is tragic in both the novella and the film, but while Tamango survives by the skin of his teeth in the original tale, the movie dooms him along with the other captives when Captain Reinker makes a last deadly bid to end the revolt.
As a staunch supporter of civil rights and other leftwing causes, Berry treats the rebellion on the Esperanza as an early flowering of the Black Power movement. Perhaps for that reason, and also the unconvincing portrayal of romance between Aiché and the captain, the film won few admirers in 1958. According to cultural scholar Raphaël Lambert, it was promoted as "daring and groundbreaking in the United States for featuring a few kisses and embraces" between the white captain and his black mistress. But the disastrous outcome of the story suggests that Aiché was right when she said a slave can never win against the white world - true in her case, but defeatist all the same - and Lambert observes that a 19th century slave-ship captain would hardly take his mistress on board and let her strut in skimpy dresses for everyone to see.
Tamango is interesting today as an example of politically aware cinema from the socially conflicted time when the conservative 1950s were on the verge of yielding to the tumultuous 1960s, and it showcases a star performance by Dandridge in the prime of her career. Just as important, the story is suspenseful, the cast is multiethnic and multiracial, and director Berry's commitment to human rights is laudable and crystal clear.
Director: John Berry
Producers: Marcello Danon, Roland Girard, Sig Shore, René Gaston Vuattoux
Screenplay: John Berry, Lee Gold, Tamara Hovey, Georges Neveux; adapted from Prosper Merimeé's Tamango
Cinematographer: Edmond Séchan
Film Editing: Roger Dwyre
Production Design: Max Douy
Music: Joseph Kosma
With: Dorothy Dandridge (Aiché), Curt Jurgens (Captain John Reinker), Alex Cressan (Tamango), Jean Servais (Doctor Corot), Roger Hanin (First Mate Bebe), Guy Mairesse (Werner), Julien Verdier (Fernando), Douta Seck (slave warrior), Bouraima Damiz (slave bride), Clément Harari (cook), Habib Benglia (black chief), Bashir Touré (Zaru), Doudou Babet (Chadi), Pierre Rosso (diving sailor)
By David Sterritt