The year is 1820, and slavery has been abolished by the French, but despite this the trade continues thanks to other countries supporting it, including the illegal capture of Africans in French territories to be sold by unscrupulous men. One such man is Captain John Reinker (Curt Jurgens) who has just picked up a group of tribesmen from a kidnapped village and is negotiating with the tribal chief who wants all he can get for their sale, but mostly wants guns. Reinker knows if he sells the chief guns, the likelihood is that he will turn them on the whites as well as his black rivals, but agrees to give him what he wants, if not in the amount he would prefer. But one of the slaves is far from docile...
Tamango was a highly controversial movie in its day, or it would have been had the right people seen it, but alas this French-Italian co-production was banned in the United States initially, and in French colonial territories as well, though it would eventually win a limited release in America. Once there, it became a major cult film for the African American population in the urban theatres it played, proving a substantial moneymaker where it was shown, and not solely because it starred Dorothy Dandridge, one of the first black Hollywood stars who refused to condescend to appearing in stereotypical roles as her predecessors had. Alas, her noble intentions ended badly for her.
After Carmen Jones, it was predicted by many Dandridge would lead a revolution in how race was depicted on the American screen, much as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte would for the black leading men of the nineteen-fifties, but thanks to following bad advice, poor mental health and simple, ugly racism in the industry she never succeeded, and if recalled today it is for her tragedy as a casualty of Hollywood - she died in 1965 a few short years after Tamango won its wider release. Here she played a slave, but not one Reinker is taking to be sold in America, Aiche was born a slave and though she longs for release, she is resigned to the idea that the rotten system will prevent that.
However, what of Tamango? This story is often credited as being based on a book by Prosper Merimee (as Carmen Jones had been, to an extent), but it was actually based in turn on a true story of a slave revolt on a ship - thinking about it, though our idea of slavery is of Africans going to their fate, if not willingly, then not putting up much of a struggle once they had been conquered, there must have been instances where there were revolts either on the cargo ships or at the plantations, as not everyone who undergoes this nightmare is going quietly. Decades later, Steven Spielberg's Amistad, a well-meaning try at similar material, detailed another example, but there was a lot more fire in this, directed by the blacklisted John Berry, the story of Tamango, the slave who refused to knuckle down and accept the outrage visited upon him.
He was played by Alex Cressan in what would be his only role; he was a medical student from Martinique hired for the titular character, and did so very well, so charismatic in fact that you may lament that medicine's gain was acting's loss. It seems curious that after hiring Dandridge the producers went for an unknown for Tamango, but he is often in a supporting part of the action, an instigator of the shipboard rebellion and a clever strategist given his limited resources - the shot of him breaking his chains is genuinely thrilling. But it was Aiche who the heart of the tale resided with, as she has been forced to be Reinker's sexual plaything for too long now and the scene where she believes she has her freedom and tells him how much he disgusts her in actuality was among her best. If this got understandably cramped since the entire action takes place on the sea, then the anger it displayed was not like anything in an American production until the seventies television miniseries of Roots; maybe not a minor classic, but it was meaningful. Music by Joseph Kosma.