Director: Bruce Beresford
Stars: Maynard Eziashi, Pierce Brosnan, Edward Woodward
Year Released: 1990
Proper English Spoilers
While most conquered peoples will hate their new masters, some will try to become them. These poor chumps end up having the worse time of anyone because nothing is more dangerous than a servant trying to be a master. In 1923 Africa had been well and truly conquered by various European powers, with Nigeria having been under British influence since 1885 until it was officially declared part of the British Empire in 1901. Some Nigerians rebelled but most just tried to continue their lives as best as they could under the new and confusing rules of a foreign power that had very little interest in understanding the society of the people who were now under their control. “Mister Johnson” is the story of one of those regular Africans trying to become an Englishman.
More specifically it’s the story of the titular Mr. Johnson (Maynard Eziashi), the friendly and helpful clerk, who serves as the assistant to the local district officer Harry Rudbeck (Pierce Brosnan). Johnson considers himself different from the other Africans, specifically, he considers himself an Englishman. I’m not even joking about this, Johnson dresses in a fine Savile Rd. suit with matching shoes, he always speaks English far more than he speaks his native language and he even refers to England as his home country.
Now Johnson is neither insane nor is he stupid, he just sees the world in a very simple way. While this is more touched upon in the novel “Mr. Johnson” is based on, foreign missionaries educated Johnson when he was a child. These missionaries hoped to “civilize” the “savage” African and gave him his Christian name. It was during this education that Johnson decides that a man was either savage (meaning African) or civilized (meaning English). Since Johnson himself was civilized, then he must also be an Englishman.
By the start of the movie, Johnson has gone into severe debt with his English Gentleman lifestyle. To his own detriment, Johnson lives in the moment and goes from scheme to scheme, always trying to stay one step ahead of whoever is after him. Johnson gets his big break when his boss Mr. Rubbeck mentions that his dream project, a road that would connect his township to the main highway has run out of money. Mr. Johnson takes this opportunity to teach Rudbeck about the way create money.
With his trademark, helpful nature, Mr., Johnson suggests that instead of building a new courthouse, just paint the old one and use the money on the road, instead of buying new uniforms for the colonial soldiers just patch up the old ones and use the money on the road. Now this turn of events can be taken many different ways. You could see it as the devious Johnson corrupting his gracious employer. Or, you could see it as Johnson becoming a true Englishman by exploiting the African people like Rudbeck and his friends. I prefer to think of it as just another sign of Johnson not thinking ahead. Johnson is simply focused on completing the road and nothing else and fraud is the best way to do it. Johnson will take this attitude with him throughout the entire movie and it will eventually lead to tragedy.
While “Mr. Johnson” is full of great performances, the standout is Mr. Johnson himself. Not only does he have a magnetic and charming personality but also he’s such a complex character that anyone who watches this movie will be pondering his motivations and mind state long after the movie is done. I see Mr. Johnson as someone who has bought into the message of colonialism. While the stated message of England’s domination of other countries was to “spread civilization” and “educate the savage natives”, the truth was that it all came down to money and power. The thing is, many of the people in the field carrying out this conquest fully bought into the idea of bringing civilization to the barbarians. While most of the Africans ignored the rhetoric and treated the British as the latest in a long line of foreign dictators, Mr. Johnson is the exception.
This is best demonstrated through the conversation Mr. Johnson has with the crude and racist shopkeeper Sargy Gollup (Edward Woodward). After growing close to Johnson on a hunting trip, Sargy gives him an unfortunate compliment when he tells him that he’s, “Too good to be a Nig.” Johnson actually takes this racist jibe as a compliment and why shouldn’t he, Sargy mean it as one. Understand that Johnson isn’t some spineless servant taking Sargys abuse with a smile; he simply takes the comment to mean he is a true Englishman. Johnson actually knocks Sargy out when the have an argument later on something the other Africans would never attempt for fear of the consequences but Johnson would because he sees himself as Sargys equal. Here are two men that are unaware of any power plays being made in London, their mealy two men trying to civilize each other.
If anything frustrates me about this movie it’s Johnson’s superior Mr. Rudbeck. He starts off as a typically oblivious Englishman, who’s so wrapped up in his own affairs that he can’t bother to understand his own surroundings. In fact, one of the earliest schemes in the movie is Rudbeck explaining to the local Waziri that they cannon flog a woman for stealing. While the Waziri tries to explain to Rudbeck that this is how they’ve done things for century’s, Rudbeck tells him that flogging is now forbidden and that’s that.
While I’m hardly trying to push some kind of pro-flogging agenda, you have to realize that it comes across as monumentally arrogant for a foreigner to tell someone that they have to abandon centuries old customs, just because they say so. While Rudbeck does improve by the end of the move I wonder if he has really learned anything. He tries to help Johnson at his point of greatest need and even grants him his final request, but was this because he has realized the cruelty of colonialism or simply due to his lingering affection for his helpful assistant. Either way, the final shot of Rudbeck is a hunting one as he ponders for the first time in his life, what serving England really means.
Did I like the movie: Yes
Would I watch it again: Yes
Would I buy it: no
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