Alex Cassan and Dorothy Dandridge in "Tamango"
Alex Cassan and Dorothy Dandridge in "Tamango" (1958)

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.