Colonial Africa, Colonial Kenya, colonialism, Denys Finch Hatton, Iman, Isak Dinesen, Karen Blixen, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Meryl Streep, Movies I Love, Out of Africa, Racial Issues, Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack
Out of Africa (1985, dir. Sydney Pollack) is a wonderful film in many ways. It’s one of those movies that draws me in any time I run across it on cable. But its depiction of colonial Africa leaves a good deal to be desired.
The film is loosely based on Karen Blixen’s memoire of life in Kenya in the 1920s, Out of Africa (written under the pen name of Isak Dinesen). Consequently, the film is not truly a depiction of colonial Kenya so much as it is a depiction of Blixen’s memoires about colonial Kenya. As a result, we have to recognize that the film’s view of Africa is at two removes from history, since it is showing the Africa of Blixen’s memories more than the Africa of history. At least, it claims to be about Blixen’s memoire, although it substantially deviates from the book, as I pointed out in my previous post.
The book is, at a fundamental level, about the contrast between European and African society, and the movie tries to capture that by showing the exoticism of African’s wildlife, scenery, and peoples. The cinematography is at times breath-taking and lyrical. But while the film successfully captures some of Africa’s beauty, it does a much less effective job of capturing African culture. Where Blixen’s book spends a good deal of time exploring her relationship with various Africans and her efforts to make sense of their society, the film’s focus on the relationship between Blixen (Meryl Streep), Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer), and Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) means that much of the heart of the book gets crowded out.
The major African characters in the film are all taken from the book. Her loyal aide Farah, her young cook Kamante Gatura, and the Kikuyu chieftain Kinanjui are all prominent characters in the memoire. In fact, they are all far more important characters in the book than they are in the film, especially the latter two. Nearly a fifth of the book is devoted to Blixen’s reminiscences about Kamante, and Kinanjui gets a whole chapter. Farah does not get his own section like the other two, but is a constant presence in many of her anecdotes.
Farah was an exceedingly important figure on her coffee farm, handling much of the daily management of the estate and becoming a major confidant. Blixen describes their relationship as a “creative unity”. She describes Kamante’s efforts to get married, and makes frequent references to his comments about various unusual situations. (When a brush fire breaks out nearby, he tells her that she had better get up because “God is coming.” After she points out that it is only a brush fire, he comments that he thought he would be on the safe side, just in case it actually was God.) Kinanjui is a complex figure, wise, proud, and somewhat vain, whose support was vital to her getting the workers she needed for the farm. What makes the book such excellent reading is the way that all the characters emerge clearly as human beings.
Unfortunately, none of these characters emerge strongly as people in the film. Farah (Malick Bowens) appears frequently, but rarely shows himself to be anything more than an obedient servant. Kamante (Joseph Thiaka) features in several scenes regard his sore-covered legs, which Blixen persuades him to get treated at a Nairobi hospital. One of the more memorable scenes involves a conversation in which the two of them discuss Kamante’s leg as if it has its own will; sadly this scene seems to be an invention of the screenwriter Kurt Luedtke. Kinanjui (Stephen Kinyanjui) acts primarily an opponent of Blixen’s plan to educate the Kikuyu, although he eventually changes his mind. This too seems to be Luedtke’s invention.
The film does not permit Kamante and Kinanjui to be real people in their own right. Whereas Blixen and Finch Hatton are permitted to grow and develop as people, Kamante and Kinanjui only grow and change in reaction to Blixen’s actions. We are not allowed to see their personal conflicts or even the moment when they change their minds and agree to Blixen’s wishes; in both cases, they simply show up and demonstrate that their thinking has changed. Whereas the historical Farah and Kamante had wives and children, in the film they are apparently single, because their personal lives are unimportant.
The film wishes to portray Blixen’s benevolent paternalism (maternalism?) toward the Africans around her. In several scenes she is shown giving medical help to the Kikuyu (something Blixen actually did a good deal, although she admits she had only a first aid course for training). She wants to educate her Kikuyu (and persuades the missionary she recruits to hold off on evangelizing his students). When she has to sell the farm, her last struggle is to arrange a new home for the tribe that will be displaced when her farm is developed. To a considerable extent, the film uses its named African characters to demonstrate her benevolent generosity. She persuades Kamante to get his leg treated over his initial resistance, and she persuades Kinanjui that literacy would be a valuable skill for his people.
Because the film is more interested in using Africans to demonstrate the cinematic Blixen’s character than in accurately capturing the real Blixen’s experiences with them, Luedtke resorts to inventing scenes that didn’t happen, so that he can show off her character. Most of the more notable scenes with Kamante and Kinanjui are not based in her writings, as far as I can tell. So too is the scene at the end of the film in which Farah expresses his devotion to her (she tells him that she will go ahead of him and light a fire to guide him to her, an odd thing to tell a man who will be staying behind to take care of his family). Kinanjui’s opposition to her school also seems to be an invention. So rather than letting the real characters say what they actually said, we are given Hollywood ideas of what Africans would say to a white woman they have come to love because she’s so benevolent.
(As an aside, another memorable scene at the end of the film is also a Hollywood invention. Although Blixen did persuade the British government to provide the Kikuyu tribe with land, she did not do it by creating a scene by publicly embarrassing the incoming governor and impressing his wife.)
All of this is emblematic of a wider problem with the film, which is that it has little interest in exploring the negative impact of colonialism on the Africans. In the film, Finch Hatton is worried about the loss of wildlife and untouched land, which is accurate, but he has no such concern for the native peoples. If you watch the film closely, in fact you will see that he is quite condescending toward the natives. He has a black servant that he never speaks to, and tells Blixen to ignore the man entirely. He casually mentions the man’s death later in the film as if he doesn’t care that the man has died. Finch Hatton also asserts that the Masai are incapable of thinking about the future; they die if they are put into prison because they cannot understand that they will ever be let out. He makes a similar comment that animals have no sense of time. While the film presents these comments as a profound insight, as an observation that Africans and animals live in the moment, what Finch Hatton is actually doing is saying that Africans are more like animals than humans mentally (a point reinforced by the fact that both the Kikuyus and the animals are fascinated by his gramophone). One might defend this as representing an historically accurate way that some Europeans viewed Africans, but in the film these comments are offered as examples of his wisdom, not as a way to suggest he looks down on the Africans. (And at his funeral, Blixen briefly sees a glimpse of Finch Hatton’s dead Masai servant, suggesting that this servant, much like Murron in Braveheart, was supernaturally loyal to him, despite his condescension and apparent disregard.)
The theme of African devotion to white superiors runs through the film. In addition to Finch Hatton’s Masai servant, the European Berkeley Cole has a Somali servant Mariammo (Iman) who is also revealed to be his lover; he says that he “thinks” she likes him (one would hope so; otherwise he’s basically been raping her). Farah and Kamante are both devoted to Blixen and want to go to Europe with her when she leaves. Since both men were actually married, the film has subtly stripped away their families in order that they can regard Blixen as a substitute wife or mother. The Kikuyu workers never express any emotion more negative than a certain wariness of Blixen, a wariness that dissipates once they realize she’s a good person.
What is especially problematic here is that the film makes few efforts to show us what these white characters did to earn the devotion of their servants; it’s just taken as a given. The film never contemplates the possibility that this devotion might be a calculated strategy of self-interest, in which a lower status person chooses to serve a more powerful person as way of getting employment, shelter, legal protection, or whatever else might be needed. Instead, Africans just seem to love their benevolent colonial masters. Mariammo seems content to be treated as Cole’s servant instead of being acknowledged publicly as his de facto wife.
What makes this so frustrating is that the memoire takes a very different attitude toward its African characters. Blixen recognized that the relationship between Europeans and Africans was complicated. She discusses the fact that Africans are slow to trust Europeans and often dislike speaking to them. She contrasts the native justice system favorably to the British system, which allows a man to kill his native servant without punishment. She discusses the fact that the colonial authorities repeatedly tried to suppress the native Ngoma dances out of fear that they will encourage resistance to colonial authority. So it’s not that Blixen herself was oblivious to these issues; the film mostly chooses to remove these elements from her story.
The film touches on these issues only briefly and obliquely. At Cole’s funeral, Mariammo is forced to stand outside the fence around the graveyard. When Blixen tries to get the British government to provide for the Kikuyu, Blixen comments that ‘we’ have taken their land from them. At first glance this seems a rather enlightened comment, until you consider that the reason Blixen can hire the Kikuyu for her farm is that she herself (and her husband Bror) are the ones who dispossessed this tribe of their land. Her benevolence is shown by the fact that, having taken the Kikuyu’s farmland, she is willing to pay them to help her farm it and worries about what will happen when she leaves.
The film is not entirely blind to the power imbalance between Africans and Europeans; it simply doesn’t want to call any serious attention to it. It does at least acknowledge the way Europeans dispossessed Africans of their lands and turned them into servants. Cole’s relationship with Miriammo speaks volumes about the treatment of Africans, but it speaks quite softly.
But the most effective way the film does this lies in a subtle but repeated theme of the challenge of communication between Africans and Europeans. Finch Hatton and his servant do not speak to each other, and he tells Blixen to ignore the man. Mariammo has no dialogue (so the film has literally deprived her of her voice), and Blixen briefly contemplates speaking to the woman at the funeral but chooses not to. No one in the film, even Cole, explicitly acknowledges the reality of the relationship. The servants in the Muthaiga Club bar do not speak to Blixen, and are reluctant to acknowledge her drink order at all. Blixen speaks to Kinanjui only through a translator, because he “has no British”. Only Kamante and Farah have significant speaking roles, and both call her Msabu, indicating their subservience; when Farah finally does speak her name, it only because she orders him to do so as they are parting. In all of this, the film subtly emphasizes that Africans and Europeans could not speak openly and honestly to each other as equals, but only as master and servant. Only Blixen is able to bridge that gap, and even then only briefly at the end of the film.
A Different Kind of Power Imbalance
It’s not that Sydney Pollack wasn’t thinking about inequality in this film. It’s that he’s more interested in gender inequalities than racial ones. Once the decision was made to focus on Blixen’s romance with Finch Hatton, it was natural to develop this into a ‘woman’s film” by focusing on other issues relevant to women in the 1980s, namely sexual liberation, the ability to work, and equal treatment socially, all three of which are addressed in the film. At the start of the film, Blixen is at the end of a pre-marital love affair when she untraditionally proposes to Bror (he wryly asks her “are you sure you’re not being too romantic?”). Later, after Bror and she separate, she starts another unconventional love affair with Finch Hatton, but is dissatisfied that he will not permanently commit to her and ultimately she breaks it off. So she is presented in some ways as a sexually liberated woman, but one who longs for the security of a conventional marriage after her failed marriage.
The film also shows her working on the coffee farm right alongside her workers, planting trees, processing the beans for roasting, bagging up the roasted beans, and so on. She frequently leads her workers in tasks such as repairing the dikes. In Hollywood tradition, this demonstrates her genuineness, because she is a lower class worker at heart, even if she’s actually a woman of money and leisure.
At the start of the film, when she arrive in Nairobi, she makes the mistake of walking into the Muthaiga Club’s bar, which is a male-only space, and she is immediately rebuked and forced to leave. In real life, this is a nonsensical scene; a woman of Blixen’s social standing and training would have known that she didn’t belong there, but in the film it acts to remind viewers that this was a period when women were explicitly excluded from many spaces. At the end of the film the men of the club invite her in for a going-away drink, as a sign that they have come to have respect for her. Again, in the context of her day, this is a false note; the men would have seen themselves as respecting her since in both scenes, the men all stand up when she enters the room, which was a standard gesture of courtesy to a woman at the time. So the purpose of the scene is to vindicate her hard work and virtue.
However, at the same time, the film works to undermine Blixen in subtle ways. When she arrives in Africa, she is scared of the natives and at one point tries to literally shoo them away. Although she knows how to hunt (at the start of the film she is participating in a shooting party), and although the historical Blixen went on safaris with her husband before she met Finch Hatton, in the film, Finch Hatton is the one who teaches her how to hunt. But when she is charged by a lioness, she manages to shoot it herself, impressing Finch Hatton. She needs Finch Hatton’s protection, but not completely. So while the film ignores the racial imbalances in colonial Kenya, it explores the gender imbalances.
And it does this by injecting gender in a way that Blixen never does in the memoire. In the book, she makes almost no reference the fact that she’s a woman (and, given that she was using a male pen name, it might have been odd if she had). So, in a way, the film colonizes Blixen’s memoire the way the Europeans colonized Kenya, taking her story as its own and exploiting it for its own purposes rather than respecting hers.
Want to Know More?
Out of Africa is available on Amazon.
If you want to read something about colonial Kenya and the race issues there, Colonial Kenya Observed: British Rule, Mau Mau and the Wind of Change is the memoires of a provincial administrator who lived in Kenya the whole time Dinesen was there. Communal Labor in Colonial Kenya: The Legitimization of Coercion, 1912-1930looks at the labor system that Dinesen benefitted from on her plantation. It is rather pricy, however.