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2013 S&A Highlights: 'Tamango' - The Dorothy Dandridge Slave Revolt Movie You'll Probably Never See

Features
by Sergio
January 2, 2014 2:52 PM
19 Comments
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"Tamango"
"Tamango"

Editor's note: As 2013 comes to an end, I'll be reposting some of our highlights published during the year. Those who've already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you'd like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here's the 11th of many to come, originally posted in February 2013. Happy New Year to you all! 

Well not that’s exactly true. You can see the film, but under very less than ideal conditions. But I’ll get to that in a minute

Since films dealing with slavery seem to be in vogue at the moment I thought it would be interesting to take a look at a rarely seen, let alone even known, film on the subject released back in 1958 and starring Dorothy Dandridge called Tamango.

Like most black actresses, Dandridge found it hard to find roles, so  when the offer came to play the female lead in a French/Italian co-production being shot in France and opposite Curt Jurgens, a German actor who from the mid-50’s to the late 70’s was a major international film star working on both Hollywood and foreign films, how could she not resist?

The film, which is set during the early 19th century, was groundbreaking for its time since it dealt with the slave trade and deals with a Dutch slave trader (Jurgens) with his slave cargo sailing for Cuba. Along with Jurgens is his slave mistress played by Dandridge. Jurgens intends the voyage to be his last since he has plans to get married and retire back to Holland.

However, one of the slaves on board (played by Alex Cassan, a non-professional whose appearance in the film was his only film role)  is planning to lead a revolt to take over the ship and sail back to Africa and tries to enlist Dandridge to help. She refuses at first and he insults her calling her “white man trash” (as you’ll see in the clip below).

Eventually Cassan does lead a mutiny taking Dandridge as hostage. Jurgens threatens to kill all of them if they don’t release her. But eventually realizing who she is and her situation, she decides to stay with the other rebels. In the end, Jurgens fires his cannons into the ship’s hold at the slaves. As they sing, their songs for freedom are eventually silenced.

Not only was the subject of a slave revolt too hot to handle for American audiences in 1958, the interracial romance between Dandridge and Jurgens was perhaps even too much.

Ironically just the year before, in 1957 20th Century Fox released their film Island in the Sun, co-starring Dandridge in a subplot where she played a woman who is involved romantically with a white man. 

But being a Hollywood picture produced by made a major studio in the late 1950’s  you wouldn’t know it. They mainly walk side by side in a couple of scenes, dance in one scene with their bodies respectfully very far apart from each other, and at one point the man tells Dandridge that he’svery fond” of her. That’s basically it. You had to use your imagination to fill in the rest. And that was considered very controversial back then.

That’s definitely not a problem with Tamango. Jurgens clearly lusts after her in every scene. They even have some kissing scenes between them and it’s pretty obvious that a lot more than kissing is going on in the captain’s quarters (Not surprisingly Jurgens and Dandridge had an off screen affair during the making of the film).

However aside from the slave revolt storyline and all that interracial lust, the other big controversy had to do with the director of the movie, John Berry.

He was a Hollywood director during the 1940’s with some major films, and was definitely on the rise until he was 'blacklisted' during the Red Scare panic in America of the 1950’s. He was one of many people including artists, scientists and other people of all walks of life, who were persecuted and destroyed by the Congressional House of Un-American Activities Committee for having progressive leftist sympathies. 

Like other American blacklisted directors who refused to be a “friendly witness' and "name names"  like Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin (and unlike Elia Kazan and Edward Dymytrk who did so to continue working in Hollywood), Berry fled the U.S. to continue making films in the U.K. and Europe.

A film about a slave revolt involving an interracial romance directed by a suspected Commie was too much for some people and the film was barely released in the U.S. No major American distributor would touch the film. It was eventually picked up by a tiny minor distributor who only released it to a few cities and it got bad reviews.

On a side note Berry did return to the U.S. in the 60’s where he directed several TV episodes while still making films in Europe, and in the 1970’s directed a few American features film including everyone's favorite, the 1974 film Claudine with Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones.

As for Tamango, the film is available on a bootleg DVD made from an old, faded pan and scan (the film was shot in Cinemascope) 16 mm print, and it doesn’t look likely that it will ever be restored back into its full glory.

But it’s worth it if somebody did. Not that it's a great film by any means, but you have to admit, from I what I’ve just told you about it, that it’s well worth watching.



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19 Comments

  • SAVANNAH MORGAN | January 3, 2014 8:23 PMReply

    *peeks in* did somebody call my name??

    SERGIO you won me over I will take a gander however, will this top my ultimate fav Carmen Jones?

    *winks* CareyCarey

  • CareyCarey | January 3, 2014 8:43 PM

    **CareyCarey takes a break from watching Silver gallop across rooftops and moving trains to wink back at Savannah Morgan. Now he's going back to see if The Lone Ranger saves the day and wins the heart of the damsel in distress**

  • Roland S. Jefferson | May 27, 2013 9:55 PMReply

    Tamango was filmed in France and was filmed both in french and english. Dandridge had to learn the phonetic pronunciation of each piece of dialogue and still bring the emotion that made each scene authentic. Some of the writing may have been trite, but watch the film in it's french version, and its quite impressive. Barry does a superb job of directing (compare some of the slave ship scenes to ROOTS). It was the first film in which Dandridge was allowed to kiss a white male, though in the ensuing years Hollywood seem to revel in black actresses kissing white males (SCANDAL), but abhors black actors kissing white females. But regardless of the PC sentiment of the times, Tamango still holds up as a powerful cinematic piece on the legacy of institutional slavery and the price both slaves and slavers have paid.

  • Joëlle | May 25, 2013 9:52 AMReply

    Sergio, thank you for correcting the name of the comedian playing the slave, it is about Alex Cressan and not Cassan as subscriber.

  • ALM | March 6, 2013 12:12 PMReply

    In the still shot she looks just like singer Ashanti.

  • Teofilo Colon Jr | March 2, 2013 10:17 PMReply

    I saw Tamango at the Film Forum in New York City in the mid-to-late 90s I believe. Quite a film.

    Teofilo Colon Jr.
    Being Garifuna

  • William Dorsey | February 28, 2013 10:30 PMReply

    The clip I see on this page is from Porgy and Bess. I found the Tamango clip on YouTube at http[://]www.youtube[.]com/watch?v=wn5IWqCiP3E

  • sergio | March 1, 2013 1:18 PM

    HUH! I watching it right now on the post and it's Tamango. What are you talking about?

  • CareyCarey | February 28, 2013 6:26 PMReply

    SERGIO RIDES AGAIN! I keep tellin' y'all, Mr. Sergio Mimms is DA MAN.

    On a continual basis he brings us blasts from the past that would make any film buff jealous. One of these days when I'm in his neck of the woods (that be the south side of Chicago) I'm gonna have my boys tip toe in his back door. And, we won't be looking for dirty dish-rags.

    Nawl, I'm just joking. But from the 3 years I've been reading this site, I can't help but believe he has a record and film collection TO DIE FOR. And, since he is old school, a burglar WOULD die if they put their hands on HIS shit. But a brotha can dream, can't I?

    But seriously, nobody... let me repeat that... NOBODY does it better than Mr. Simms. Shadow and Act knew what they were doing when they brought him on-board.

    Lastly... and possibly more importantly, this post takes me back to Abdul Ali's "Why Hollywood Needs More (Black) Leading Ladies" article. As I was scrambling to compete with the film buff SAVANNAH MORGAN ( she was killing me softly), I have to admit that I was hard pressed to come up with great scenes with black actresses, let alone those in leading roles. So again, it's nice to have the old-crusty-bifocal-wearing Sergio around to school this old fool. He may not know a thang about religious themed movies or those with a slave narrative, but his overall wealth of knowledge on everything related to black films is -- PRICELESS.

  • CareyCarey | February 28, 2013 10:38 PM

    OPPS.... my praise was sincere but I did jack your name twice, I guess. Sorry.

    Two "M"s not 3. Yet Mimms not Mims? So I guess it's Mimms with three "M"s not Simms?

  • sergio | February 28, 2013 8:29 PM

    Thanks you but it's Mimms not Mims. Two "M"s not 3

  • getthesenets | February 28, 2013 4:05 PMReply

    read about this film in Donald Bogle's "Brown Sugar"

    the "white man's trash" line was used in the film poster

  • Andre Seewood | February 28, 2013 3:50 PMReply

    So the project is becoming clearer and clearer to me with each new found treasure, each rarely seen work, each found print- we are going to have to excavate all of the films that we can by White "race traitor" filmmakers and read them in several different ways. As it concerns "Tamango" and "Uptight" (Dassin, 1968) the "Foreign" financed Black films made by persecuted White filmmakers during the Macarthy era can be read in two different ways: 1) as a contestation of racial polemics at the time of their release (or production) and 2) as a political commentary against the ideological conformity of the times that led the white filmmakers to have to flee the United States in the first place. It should be made clear to us all that perhaps one of the main reasons White filmmakers with Communist sympathies were being persecuted in the first place was because of the suspected Communist support for African-American civil rights at that time. (See: Paul Robeson) The reviewer indicates that "Tamango" is not a great film, by any means, but the question is how are we reading and assessing the film's value? As Anti-American/Anti-right-white wing commentary the film could be a tremendous assault on the politics and ideology of its day placed in a 19th century revolutionary context. As a "race film" would it have communicated a message of uprising and unity to the Black audience at that time, especially when it is placed in context with IMITATION OF LIFE (Sirk- 1959), SHADOWS (Cassavetes- 1959), ISLAND IN THE SUN-(1957). These films are important and they mean something more than what we are being allowed to say about them, if we only judge them against a Hollywood standard. The analysis begins with why would a White (ex-patraite) filmmaker make a "black" film about an slave revolt in an era of entrenched racial segregation and intense political conformity? When we trivalize the efforts of these White "race traitor" filmmakers by indicating that they were having "affairs" with their leading actors (Berry with Dandridge) and later as it concerns another slave revolt film WHITY (1970) by Fassbinder (and the alleged affair with his lead actor Kaufmann) we are distracting ourselves from the highly charged political and ideological messages the films were trying to communicate to their intended audiences (White and Black). There's more here than meets the eye, but perhaps we are blinding ourselves to the possibilites...

  • Andre Seewood | February 28, 2013 9:48 PM

    My apologies for the mistake on Jurgens and Dandridge. No have not seen the film. No I don't think that the film would have inspired any kind of a revolution among African-Americans during the time of its release. Yes Pontecorvo's BURN is an excellent film. But then, Pontecorvo wasn't blacklisted by the HUAA. What I am trying to suggest is that there are way too many of these kinds of "Black" films made by White ex-patriate filmmakers and European Filmmakers that have been deliberately suppressed (See: also the recent rediscovery of NATIVE SON-1951) and/or are not sufficiently released to the African-American public for a variety of reasons that go beyond just the quality of the acting or production values. My point is that somebody tried and we would perhaps benefit if we go back and take a look at their effort without concentrating on the "behind the scenes" intrigues or lack of Hollywood standards in the production. GOODBYE UNCLE TOM is another very interesting European production whose supression is also very intesting. What is interesting is that there is a suppressed genre of African-American films made by Whites/Europeans whose arc can be traced from the 50's up through and continuing beyond the 70's Blaxplotation that warrant second deeper look and discussion. Your article highlights the need for this second deeper look and discussion. Great work.

  • sergio | February 28, 2013 8:56 PM

    I said that Jurgens and Dandridge had an affair while making the film, not Berry. That is well known documented fact that has been chronicled in biographies about her. Nor do I feel that it an any way "trivialize" the film. Just the opposite. I find it fascinating that the intensity of the roles they played in the film carried over to real life. Something that happens all the time on other film shoots. Suffice to say that Dandridge did not have affairs with most of her leading men.

    Also have you actually seen the film? I have though it was some 25 years ago or so. But I saw in a theater on the big screen in what was perhaps the last surviving Scope print and it isn't that good and suffers badly from ovetwrought acting and limited production values. It's not remotely on the level of Gillo Ponecorvo's Burn which is a great, brilliant movie. You're reading WAY too much into the film than what's there. True, the subject matter is definitely quite radical for it's time, but what effect it would have had on the black audiences if they actually have a chance to see it back that I cannot say. You would like to believe that it would have started some sort of revolution. Not bloody likely. On the other hand Goodbye Uncle Tom, years later, a more in your face, brutal film, actually made audiences riot which is why they had to pull the film from theaters back in the early 70's.

  • AccidentalVisitor | February 28, 2013 3:31 PMReply

    Dandridge as a slave. Laughable.

  • jeftcg | February 28, 2013 3:08 PMReply

    Aw come ON, man! The "Tamango" was what I was going to call my original invention of tobacco and mango juice. DAMMIT why do people keep bitin my s**t!

  • Man-Over-Bored | February 28, 2013 12:35 PMReply

    Great clip -- I'm sold! Looking to purchase this one; it's on Amazon!

  • urbanauteur | February 28, 2013 12:13 PMReply

    This probably would have been a good vehicle for Zoe Saldana, huh?

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