Alex Cressan as Tamango. Image: TCM

According to the Global Slavery Index, approximately 40.3 million people “were victims of modern slavery on any given day in 2016.”¹

“Of these, 24.9 million people were in forced labour,” continues the report, “and 15.4 million people were living in a forced marriage.”²

Slavery is Big Business. According to the 50 for Freedom Campaign, “forced labour generates annual profits of over US$ 150 billion, which is as much as the combined profits of the four most profitable companies in the world.”³

Tamango (1958), a French-Italian production, examines the business of slavery, and the fables slave traders tell themselves.

From Tamango (1959).

Tamango stars Dorothy Dandridge as a young woman born into slavery on an American plantation. She works for wealthy slave trader Curd Jürgens – and by “works for” we mean, “is a personal slave to”.

The film takes place in 1820, as Jürgens picks up new “cargo” (future slaves) from African traders in exchange for 25 rifles and two barrels of rum. Slavery is outlawed, but Jürgens provides a Valuable Service to his buyers. He’s a decent man; why, if he didn’t sell slaves, someone unscrupulous would do it, and that would ruin people’s lives.

Hmm.

He lives a rather charmed life, Jürgens’s character does. He has power and wealth, and he sees himself as something of a humanitarian. He ensures his passengers’ leg irons don’t cause scarring (drives prices down), and they’re fed and exercised daily (keeps prices high).

If a passenger gives him too much trouble, he throws them overboard so everyone can Get On with Their Day.

He’s engaged to a European woman, and when this voyage is done, he will marry her and live the life of a Gentleman. After all, he’s worked hard and provided good service to his clients.

Alas, Jürgens has underestimated a man named Tamango (Alex Cressan), a lion hunter who is regarded as a leader by the other passengers. Cressan-as-Tamango is determined he will never become a slave, and his decision has disastrous consequences.

Actually, that is unfair. It’s Jürgens’s view of humanity that leads to tragedy.

Dorothy Dandridge has a Moment with Curd Jürgens. Image: MUBI

Dorothy Dandridge is stellar in this film. Although she’s young, she carries a hard, cynical view of the world. People think the worst of her and she shrugs it off. In fact, she’s amused by Tamango’s resolve to Buck The System.

Even when she learns of Jürgens’s plans to marry someone else and Auction Her Off, she airily describes the way men will frantically outbid each other for her. Yet, there’s an edge to her tale, a bitterness that comes with experience.

Her anger surfaces later when she tells him she hates him, has always hated him.
Jürgens: “You’re lying.”
Dandridge: “No. I’m telling the truth to a white man for the first time in my life.”

Cressan asks Dandridge to betray Jürgens. Image: IndieWire

Tamango is based on the 1829 novella by French writer, historian and archaeologist Prosper Mérimée. The film, written and directed by the blacklisted Hollywood director John Berry, was filmed in France, where Berry relocated after HUAC went gunning for him.

According to The Cinephiliac, Dandrige was influential in shaping this film: “She took on a role similar to that of a producer by making drastic changes to the script and integrity of the character she was to portray. Dandridge helped transform Tamango from an atypical exploitation film into a piece of subversive art with a powerful tale to deliver.”4

Now, you’re probably thinking a film with an interracial romance was pretty daring for 1958, and you’d be right. The Cinephiliac says this was also one of the first films to portray the ugliness of slavery.

According to Wikipedia, France banned the film in its West African colonies – don’t want to give folks Ideas! – and the film didn’t see a limited release in the U.S. until 1962.5

We hope you can see Tamango, for the superb performances and for the message about slavery that is, sadly, still relevant today.

Disclosure: The Film Detective sent us a link in exchange for an unbiased review.

Sources

¹The Global Slavery Index. (Retrieved February 19, 2019.) Global Findings: Overview.
²Ibid.
³50 for Freedom. (Retrieved February 19, 2019.) Modern Slavery: Myths & Facts.
4The Cinepheliac. (Retrieved February 23, 2019.) How Dorothy Dandridge Aided in the Validity and Transformation of Tamango (1958).
5Wikipedia. (Retrieved February 23, 2019.) Tamango.

Tamango: starring Dorothy Dandridge, Curd Jürgens, Jean Servais. Directed by John Berry. Written by John Berry, Lee Gold & Tamara Hovey. CEI Incom, 1958, Colour, 100 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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