Kenya wrested independence from the British in 1963. On the government square in Nairobi, there is a statue of Jomo Kenyatta, hero of the revolution that made him president of the country in 1964. There is only one Hollywood movie that makes a powerful statement on this topic and, remarkably, it stars Rock Hudson.
Something of Value (1957)
“When you take from a man his traditional way of life, his customs, his religion, we had better make certain we replace them with SOMETHING OF VALUE.”
Kenya, British East Africa, 1945. Rock Hudson plays the son of a Nairobi farmer. Without a mother, he was raised side by side with his friend Kimani (Sidney Poitier) of the Kikuyu (say Kee-coo-you) tribe. Now they are grown, and must face the entrenched racism of British domination. When Kimani is struck by a white man on the farm, he runs off and ends up joining the early stages of the Mau Mau insurrection. It is now 1952. Meanwhile, Rock has married a pretty girl named Holly. While they are picnicking on the savannah, Mau Mau warriors, Kimani among them, raid the farm and slaughter a family with children. Kenya is suddenly in a state of war and Rock must go and join the fight. There are whites who want to kill Africans lest they regain the rule of this land.
Rock is involved in a raid on a Kikuyu village. The whites are as violent as the blacks. Rock is tormented by the savagery but does little to stop it. He returns to the farm deranged and feeling dead inside. But soon he returns to battle for his land. He meets Kimani in the forest and they ponder together on how it could happen that there is so much hatred between the European oppressors and the African oppressed. Later, there is a white raid on an African camp and Kimani’s wife is killed. He takes his infant child and runs away with Rock in pursuit. Rock tries to persuade his friend to surrender in the hope that they can start over. Kimani says it is too late and they fight again. He falls into a pit filled with stakes and dies. Rock takes the baby back to his farm.
This is a very remarkable film. I was not aware of it as a teenager in 1957, but I have distinct memories of the terror the word Mau Mau (rhymes with how now) was meant to engender in citizens of peaceful white communities. It was the fear of race war. For this reason, I could never grasp the choice made by the doo-wop group who had a popular hit song containing the refrain “Oom papa mow mow” (pronounced mau mau). I’m guessing that there are more people in the USA who remember this song lyric than can discuss the details of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, beginning in 1952. I only learned of the movie in mid 2013 as I was building my new MovieJourneys website. Despite being a Hollywood production, with two major motion picture stars, it is a surprisingly uncompromising look at the Kenyan Rebellion and independence movement, representing the two sides of the story with admirable balance. It is interesting to note that this courageous and important movie is not mentioned at all in Poitier’s Wiki biography, and is passed over quickly in Hudson’s bio. The American public was not charmed by tales of massacre. It is based on a novel by Robert Ruark, a popular writer of the mid century whose works were drawn from his personal experiences in Africa.
Views of post-revolutionary Kenya can be seen in The Constant Gardener (2005) and The Boys of Baraka (2005).