Black and White Bioscope – Making Movies In Africa 1899 to 1925

Author: Neil Parsons
Publ: Protea Book House. ISBN: 978-1-4853-0955-0. 252pp

An appreciation of the meaning of prefixes in the English language would suggest that a book featuring the word ‘bioscope’ in its title would have something to do with the study of living organisms.  However, it is the subtitle: Making Movies In Africa 1899 to 1925 which makes it clear that Neil Parsons’ Black And White Bioscope is about cinema. More precisely, about the era of silent cinema. The other qualification to be made is that Africa is referred to misleadingly. For one thing, the area of interest is South, or better still, Southern Africa.

For another, the film making considered is Anglophone commercial cinema, to the exclusion of possible contributions from other colonial players, Francophone, Lusophone and Hispanophone, on a vast continent, during the period in focus. Having made these clarifications, Black And White Bioscope can be approached as a work of targeted research and scholarship.

The revelation to the lay reader is that, alongside Australia, Canada and New Zealand, many silent movies came out of the British Empire in Southern Africa, during a creative movement ignited by the invention of the Warwick Bioscope cine-camera, around 1900. They were largely the handiwork of a company called African Film Productions Limited, in locations not only in South Africa but also in Swaziland, Mozambique, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Nyasaland (Malawi) and Tanganyika and Zanzibar (today’s Tanzania). The appendix lists over six hundred films but the sixty movies explored in-depth, including the first productions of the epoch-making King Solomon’s Mines and The Blue Lagoon are represented by a comprehensive mention of movers and shakers, cast and crew biographies, black and white still photographs, quotations from contemporary reviews and, most tellingly, for gaining an impression of the films without actually having seen them, by plot synopses.

And there’s the rub! These synopses point to what could be uncomfortable viewing in this day and age. Witness this 1916 summary of A Zulu’s Devotion, billed as ‘the first drama released by the African Film Productions Limited.’

Tremayne, an English settler in South Africa, shows kindness to Goba, a native who has sprained a leg, and later takes him on as a farm hand. Goba detects some cattle thieves, who revenge themselves by abducting Tremayne’s little daughter. The Zulu finds a cross which has been worn by the child, and with the help of this tracks down the thief, who is secured and handed over to the police.

Witness, too, this assessment of native actors by a white film director, which appeared in The Sun newspaper in 1916.

The Zulus are quick to learn what a picture director wants of them, provided that he has approached them with understanding and tact……Once tell a Zulu about his part to play before the camera…and after a moment of heavy thought, with his hand at his brow, he has it and will act on it to the letter.

Native ‘stars’ were, indeed, created but they all fell within the polarities of intriguing enigmas in straight stories to amiable fools in embarrassing comedies.

Let us note that in 1913, within the 1899-1925 time frame of the book, American film director DW Griffith released The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, a short, silent film which first featured Red Indians in a negative light against White Cowboys.  Let us note that in 1915, the same DW Griffith served up the landmark offering The Birth Of A Nation featuring white actors in blackface, thanks to black shoe polish, playing predictably demeaning roles.

Let us note that in 1940, outside the scope of Black And White Bioscope, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American (who would then have been described as an American negro woman) who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in the 1939 film Gone With The Wind. And let us note, further, that at that ceremony, because racial segregation was still rife in the USA, McDaniel and her guest had to sit separately from the white attendees in the ceremonial hall.

It is observations such as these which might inform possible responses to Parsons’ book. An intellectually dismissive one is that, for the African in today’s Africa, it evokes an era of paternalism, pitting the white superior against the black savage; an era best erased from our continental consciousness and entirely forgotten. An intellectually accepting one is that it speaks to history, that is the way things were, which has influenced, from a myriad viewpoints, the way things are.

It must be acknowledged that, from diametrically different perspectives, all the players in Black and White Bioscopes paved the way for future generations of practitioners.  For example, although he came from Francophone Senegal, one can see how similar precedents would have inspired a film maker like Ousmane Sembene to eschew the stereotypes of the past and go on to make the trenchant, cinematic commentaries, on his own society and on African societies elsewhere, that he did. Novelty comes out of rejection and the films analysed in Black And White Bioscope remind us forcefully that what was once acceptable is no longer so. After all, some of us (reviewer included) must admit that there was a time when Cowboys and Indians movies, devoid of analysis and criticism, entertained us greatly in our childhood. Since then, we have arrived at a happy point where the rallying cry to all African creatives, everywhere, is: ‘We must tell our own stories, our way.’  We have come a long way, in the process, and academic Neil Parsons’ book, complemented, of course, by others which go beyond its specific and limited agenda, lays claim to a place in the library of anybody with an objective interest in the history of cinema in Africa.

Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu.

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