This African liberation leader was spotted in a colonial movie serving the white master

Mildred Europa Taylor September 02, 2018
A scene from Sanders of the River

It was clearly a contradiction of what he would later be fighting for – self-governance and independence for his people.

And perhaps that is why Kenya’s first president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, decided to remain silent about his first brief moments in a film that clearly celebrated British colonial rule.

Known as Sanders of the River, the movie, based on Edgar Wallace’s story from 1911, follows the story of ‘Lord Sanders’, a colonial-era British District Commissioner in Nigeria, and his African ally, Bosambo.

Sanders is said to be a “patronizing figure, portrayed as the glue that holds the communities from tearing each other apart.”

A scene from Sanders of the River — RareFilm

When Sanders goes on leave, his relief, Lord Ferguson, is not able to maintain the peace and rival king, Mofolaba subsequently raids Bosambo’s people and kidnaps his wife.

Bosambo is also kidnapped and both communities begin fighting each other again. Peace is only restored after the return of Sanders, who commands a relief force to save Bosambo.

During the handover ceremony when Sanders is going on leave, which occurs between the 34th and 40th minutes of the 90-minute film, a middle-aged African man is seen standing next to Bosambo.

Jomo Kenyatta standing third from right in the row of chiefs

As an extra, this man has no talk time in the film and also because he is acting as a tribal chief who is loyal to Bosambo.

That man, who keeps a serious face throughout the six minutes he appeared in the film, is Kenyatta, the future first president of Kenya and father of the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta.

It is not clear how Kenyatta ended up with that role but sources say he might have had known about the project through his colleague actor, the great African-American singer and political activist, Paul Robeson, who played the role of Bosambo.

Robeson hails his white rulers —

Robeson, who would later regret ever taking part in such a movie that validated Briton’s so-called civilization of Africa, is likely to have met Kenyatta, then around 45, in London’s black community, and had told him about the project.

Kenyatta would be given a rather simple role as an extra, who only had to wear tribal clothing and stand next to Robeson (Bosambo) for a single scene.

The future president earned a guinea for his role, a considerable amount at the time. So pleased he was with his role, that he reportedly presented the producer, Alexander Korda with an inscribed silver cigarette case as a token of thanks.

Released on April 8, 1935, Sanders of the River was the first of four films Alexander Korda would make within four years.

It was also the first film the three Korda brothers, who were Hungarian immigrants living in London, worked on together. Alexander’s brother, Zoltan was the director and Vincent was the art director.

“Whatever Zoltan’s own views, Sanders of the River uncritically retains the patronising racism of Edgar Wallace’s novel, depicting Africans as ‘children’ whose natural tendencies towards deceit and violence require moderation from their white British masters,” according to BFI Screenonline.

In this regard, it is rather amazing that the movie was able to attract the likes of Robeson and Kenyatta, who perhaps had thought their role was to challenge the racial stereotypes of black people.

They would later find out that they were wrong and though the movie ruined the entire career of Robeson, Kenyatta may have decided to erase that scene out of his memory.

Jomo Kenyatta led Kenya to independence from British rule in 1963 — Senior Year IB History

Three decades after the release of the film, Kenyatta would lead Kenya to independence from British rule in 1963.

“For the rest of his life, Jomo Kenyatta never liked the mention of his small part in the said 1935 movie “Sanders of the River,” because it depicts him as a “collaborator,” as a “sellout” & as a “colonial sympathiser,” whereas Jomo Kenyatta always liked modeling himself as “revolutionary” who fought colonialism almost single-handedly, a “revolutionary” who plucked the White man out of not just Kenya, but out of Africa as a whole,” said Kenyan writer, Mundia Kamau.

Watch Jomo Kenyatta’s few minutes as an actor below:


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