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A Look at ‘Tamango’ – The Dorothy Dandridge Slave Revolt Movie You’ll Probably Never See

A Look at 'Tamango' - The Dorothy Dandridge Slave Revolt Movie You'll Probably Never See

First, about the headline… it’s not exactly true. You can see the film, but under very less than ideal conditions. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Since films dealing with slavery seem to be in vogue these days, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at a rarely seen,
barely even known film on the subject, released in 1958, and starring
Dorothy Dandridge, titled “Tamango.”

Like most black actresses, Dandridge found it hard to
find roles, so when the offer came to play
the female lead in a French/Italian co-production being shot in France, and opposite
Curt Jurgens (a German actor who, from the mid-50’s to the late 70’s was a major
international film star working on both Hollywood and foreign films), how could she resist?

The film, which is set during the early 19th
century, was groundbreaking for its time since it dealt with the slave trade. It follows a Dutch slave trader (Jurgens) traveling with his slave cargo, sailing for Cuba.
Along with Jurgens is his slave mistress played by Dandridge. Jurgens intends
the voyage to be his last, since he has plans to get married and retire, after he returns to Holland.

However, one of the slaves on board his ship (played by Alex Cassan,
a non-professional whose appearance in the film was his only film role) plans to lead a revolt, take over the
ship, and sail back to Africa, with the help of Dandridge’s character – at least he hopes. She refuses
at first; in response, he insults her, calling her “white man trash” (as you’ll see in the
clip below). Ultimately, Cassan does lead a mutiny, taking Dandridge hostage. Jurgens threatens to kill all of them if they don’t release her. But eventually
realizing who she is and her situation, Dandridge’s character decides to side and stay with the revolt.
In the end, Jurgens fires his cannons into the ship’s hold, killing the slaves. As
they sing, their songs for freedom are eventually silenced.

Not only was the subject of a slave revolt too hot to
handle for American audiences in 1958, the interracial romance between Dandridge
and Jurgens was perhaps even too much.

Ironically, just the year before, in 1957, 20th Century Fox released a film called “Island in the Sun,” co-starring Dandridge in a subplot where she
played a woman who is involved romantically with a white man. But being a Hollywood
picture, produced by made a major studio, in the late 1950’s, you wouldn’t know it. Their characters mainly walk side by
side in a couple of scenes, dance in another with their bodies respectfully
very far apart from each other, and, at one point, the man tells Dandridge that he’s “very
fond” of her. That’s basically
it. You had to use your imagination to fill in the rest. And that was
considered very controversial back then.

It’s quite the opposite in “Tamango.” Jurgens clearly
lusts after her in every scene. They even kiss a number of times, and it’s made pretty obvious that
a lot more than kissing is going on in the captain’s quarters (Not surprisingly, Jurgens and Dandridge had an off-screen affair during the making of the film).

However, aside from the slave revolt storyline and all that
interracial lust, the film’s other major controversy had to do with the director of the
movie, John Berry.

He was a Hollywood director during the 1940’s with some
major films, and was definitely on the rise, until he was ‘blacklisted’ during the
Red Scare in America of the 1950’s. He was one of many people, including artists,
scientists and others from all walks of life, who were persecuted and
destroyed by the Congressional House of Un-American Activities Committee for having progressive
leftist sympathies. 

Like other American blacklisted directors who refused
to be a “friendly witness’ and “name names” like Joseph Losey and Jules
Dassin (unlike Elia Kazan and Edward Dymytrk, who obeyed in order to continue working in Hollywood), Berry fled the U.S. to continue making films in the U.K. and across Europe.

A film about a slave revolt involving an interracial romance
directed by a suspected “Commie” was too much for some audiences, and so the film was
barely released in the U.S. No major
American distributor would touch it, and “Tamango” was eventually picked up by a tiny, relatively unknown distributor who released it in very few cities to bad

As an aside, director Berry did return to the U.S. in the 60’s, where he directed episodes of several TV series, while still making films in Europe; and in
the 1970’s he directed a few American feature film, including everyone’s favorite, the 1974 drama “Claudine,”
with Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones.

As for “Tamango,” the film is available on a scrappy DVD
made from an old, faded pan and scan
(the film was shot in Cinemascope) 16 mm print, and it’s unlikely that it will ever be restored back into its full glory, and properly re-released. But it’s worth it if some distributor did. Not that it’s a great film by any means, but you have to admit, from I
what I’ve just told you about it, it’s a film worth watching.

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