This film is held by the BFI (ID: 13154).


Dramatisation of the Bakiga people's attempt to cultivate the Kigezi district of Uganda, and their encounter with the Pygmies.

The camera zooms in on a map to an area marked Kigezi. As crowds gather, 'the soldier' reads an article from the newspaper which explains that tomorrow a first group of settlers are leaving their homes to cultivate new land in Kigezi. An educated African man, Jonathan, announces that he too is leaving. He tells his father and his girlfriend, Violet, before the party depart in front of a waving crowd. The settlers set up camp and divide up the land. During a buffalo stampede, Jonathan is knocked down and attended by pygmies who nurse him back to health. Jonathan is now forced to reassess his opinion of the pygmies - previously noted enemies - and now takes 'their hand in friendship'. Jonathan returns to his land, where his fellow workers are unimpressed by his new friendship ('If you are going to mix with pygmies, you can't expect us to help clear your land'). He vows to 'look after himself' and with the help of the pygmies builds his new house. However, when he invites the pygmies to a party, the rest of his community leave.

With the community now established, the women and children arrive. However, the women are unimpressed when the crops are ruined by animals and go 'on strike'. The community is then struck with malaria, which kills Milly, one of the wives, and the wise man (Yokana's father). Jonathan is also struck down and, on recovering, visits 'the soldier' to try and resolve the division within the community. The soldier, stricken with fever, attacks Jonathan. Jonathan manages to help 'the soldier' and at the film's conclusion, the men finally accept the pygmies ('we are not afraid of new ideas they can be our friends too'). Violet and Jonathan are united and celebrate at their wedding party with pygmies and settlers.



When Cyril Frankel first flew to the Kigezi district of Uganda in 1952, it was to produce a Crown Film Unit documentary, commissioned by the Colonial Office, entitled Soil Erosion. Frankel, who admitted this ‘his knowledge of Africa at that time was mainly from Tarzan films’, travelled alone to places ‘where the people had never seen a white man before’ (Sight and Sound, Spring 1987, 80, Frankel, 55). The film was intended to highlight the work of John Purseglove, who as a District Agricultural Officer in South-West Uganda, had initiated a resettlement experiment which between 1944 and 1951 moved more than 16,000 members of the Bakiga tribe to unoccupied fertile areas. Funded by the British taxpayer through the Colonial Development and Welfare Act, the move was presented as a case study of British development within African agricultural society. The new area produced cash, as opposed to subsistence, crops, practised modern agricultural methods (using terraced strips) and included newly developed roads, built ‘by the Africans, under European checking’. The experiment highlighted that tribal resettlement ‘can be done’ and was held up as an example of population control within Africa (The Times, 9 February 1951, 5).

On his return to Britain, Frankel completed the treatment for his documentary, but plans for the film were scrapped when the Conservative government announced that it was closing down the Crown Film Unit. Frankel was then approached by John Grierson, who asked him to produce the film for his state-funded commercial film company, Group 3. Grierson arranged for Frankel to meet with the writer Montague Slater to produce a screenplay, before Frankel put together a unit of six to work in Uganda. The British crew was assisted by Seperia Mpambara, who subsequently became Minister for Trade in Uganda, while Grierson remained closely involved throughout, sending telegrams upon viewing the rushes; ‘camera action performance excellent… like reserved degree of nakedness…’ (Frankel, 57,58). 

John Grierson discussed the making of the film in 1954, and praised the Colonial Office for allowing him to produce it free of their intervention. ‘I told them it was time for the African to speak for himself and to the devil with the “White Father” stuff’, he wrote, ‘I find it a lesson for government authorities. Trust breeds trust and film-making becomes free and exciting again. This liberalism of attitude is implicit in the film’. Grierson emphasised the historical significance of the film – ‘the first ambitious, dramatic all-negro film’, ‘the film presents a new sense of negro capacity’ – and concluded that ‘for me, it is a new vision of the negro people, and that is why I think the young director, Cyril Frankel, has done one of the most important works since Flaherty and one in the best documentary tradition’ (Films and Filming, October 1954, 14). Frankel also noted that ‘we knew we had done something no one had done before. We had presented these African people as they really were at that time. Before that time, a black man in films was usually either a comic or a servant’ (Sight and Sound, Spring 1987, 81).

Published alongside Grierson’s article in Films and Filming was a review of the 74-minute film. The reviewer concluded that ‘it is difficult to say if the film will succeed commercially. In a shortened version it might have a chance with people who like films of travel’ (Films and Filming, October 1954, 14). These words seem prescient as Michael Balcon, the director of Group 3, rejected the film, as did the British cinema chains, instead showing a severely truncated travel film drawn from the material. Today’s Cinemareviewed the ‘much abbreviated version’ (with a running time of 44 minutes) and described it as a ‘documentary designed to show how Africans are learning to manage their own affairs in British colonies’ (Today’s Cinema, 25 November 1955, 6). Kinematograph Weekly recognised that ‘much meat has obviously been removed from the original script’, and concluded that ‘drastic cutting prevents it from flaring into a thought-provoking let alone thrilling, white paper. Completely lacking in showmanship, it’s more suited to the classroom than the kinema’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 1 December 1955, 18). Monthly Film Bulletin was similarly dismissive, arguing that ‘this drastic re-editing has inevitably reduced the story to a confused muddle. Any assessment of the film’s original intentions becomes somewhat difficult to arrive at, for one is left with a variably photographed African travelogue with social overtones, rather awkwardly acted and directed’ (Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1956, 3). Grierson, Slater and Frankel all removed their names from the credits.

Man of Africa had cost £38,000 and was one of 22 films produced by Group 3 between 1951 and 1956 (Frankel, 59; Dyer MacCann, 168). Set up by the Labour administration as an attempt to bolster an ‘ailing and internationally uncompetitive post-war film industry’, Group 3 struggled for effective distribution and exhibition, its films invariably appearing on the bottom half of double bills (Popple, 1996, 131). By the time of its closure it had lost ‘nearly half a million pounds of government money’ (Popple, 1996, 136). In considering Balcon’s rejection of Man of Africa, Frankel argued that his work was too far removed from the image of Africa widely presented in commercial cinema. In particular, Frankel compared Man of Africa to Balcon’s series of films made with Harry Watt in Kenya (Where No Vultures Fly and West of Zanzibar), which ‘were not about Africans, but featured British actors with Africans in the background’ (Frankel, 58). Former Grierson colleague Watt was a noted critic of Group 3, labelling its films ‘notably old fashioned, snobbish and second-rate’ (Popple, 1996, 138). 



The production history of Man of Africa outlines many of the changes and problems facing British documentary film during the early 1950s. First intended as a Crown Film Unit documentary showing colonial agricultural development plans in Uganda, the film was abandoned after Crown’s closure, before becoming a more poetic feature-length film under the guidance of John Grierson. Its subsequent re-editing as a truncated travel film indicates both the commercial expectations for post-war documentary films and the dominant cinematic representations of Africa on film in the 1950s (in which the Africans featured predominantly as ‘background characters’). The film’s production further illustrates the decline of government-sponsored commercial cinema in Britain.

John Grierson argued that Man of Africa ‘attempts to enter into the mind and spirit of the negro people as normal beings, subject to the ordinary problems of the condition humaine’. This is achieved in a number of ways, as Man of Africa encourages its predominantly non-African audience to identify and empathise with the Africans on screen.

First, Man of Africa foregrounds the African characters, and emphasises universal human experiences and problems as they encounter love, loss and death. Secondly, it positions these events and places within the established generic framework of the Western. The isolated, lone Western hero is the educated, English-speaking Jonathan – portrayed through the film’s imagery as a Christ-like figure – while the film’s presentation of travel, its emphasis on land and on familial traditions, and indeed its music, defines these characters, not by race, but within these established Western traditions. Thirdly, and most significantly, the film presents a narrative of racial discrimination amongst its all-African characters. After Jonathan is looked after by the pygmies, he asks ‘were these the people we despised, treacherous and hateful pygmies, scratching a living like rats in the forest? Thus my own people had thought of them, as I had believed. How different was the truth?’ The pygmies are presented as different – as animals, coming down from trees, dancing around the fire – using terms and imagery often used to define Africans on film. Jonathan and his friends are the discriminators here, and this further aligns them with the non-African audience. Jonathan, as the most educated of the Africans, then exposes this misconception – ‘a man’s worth was not measured by the bigness of his body’ – but also discovers that ‘it takes a long time for old ideas to die’. In commenting on filming, Cyril Frankel wrote that ‘you ceased to think of these people as in any way different from us, except in the clothes they wear’ (Sight and Sound, Spring 1987, 81). The film concludes with the assimilation of the African travellers and pygmies; ‘we are not afraid of new ideas. They can be our friends too’.

Grierson further claimed that Man of Africa allowed the African ‘to speak for himself’. However, the voiceover is provided by an African-American (Gordon Heath), and despite its all-African cast, the action within the film is, from the outset, related to British experiences within the area. While the film contains no European presence on screen, the opening title contextualises the film’s action within a rhetoric of colonial development. This opening title dedicates the film ‘to the imaginative colonial servants who organised the original Kigezi trek, gave us the freedom of Uganda and encouraged the making of a picture which does not even mention them’. Indeed the opening sequences closely mirror the intentions of the original Crown documentary by celebrating the work of the local government and the colonial authorities in instigating the re-settlement of the locals.

Man of Africa is not unique in presenting an all-African cast (for example, Nionga,1925) or in using a central African protagonist to address shifts in African society (for example, Boy Kumasenu, 1950). However, while the concurrent work of African film units (most notably the Gold Coast Film Unit and Tanganyika Film Unit, which Man of Africa cameraman Denny Densham would later head) produced films primarily for African audiences, Man of Africa was intended for British and American audiences. This is particularly significant in terms of the visual language used. While the colonial film units determined that African audiences required more simplistic narrative techniques, Man of Africa adopts visceral editing (for example, during the stampede), moving POV shots (for example when trekking through the forests), close-ups and beautiful colour photography of the African landscape and people. The commentary may romanticise this imagery in places (‘before our eyes the familiar valleys of our childhood passed like a dream’), but in presenting a feature-length film of African life, Man of Africa offers a valuable and rare counterpoint to the dominant cinematic representations of Africa during the 1950s.

Tom Rice (October 2009)


Works Cited

Dyer MacCann, Richard, ‘Subsidy for the Screen: Grierson and Group 3, 1951-1955’, Sight and Sound, 46:3, Summer 1977, 168-173.

‘Man of Africa’, Films and Filming, October 1954, 14.

Frankel, Cyril, Eye to Eye: A Memoir of Cyril Frankel (Forthcoming).

Grierson, John, ‘Making Man of Africa’, Films and Filming, October 1954, 14.

‘Man of Africa’, Kinematograph Weekly, 1 December 1955, 18.

Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1956, 3.

Popple, Simon, ‘Group Three – a Lesson in State Intervention?’, Film History, 8:2, 1996, 131-142.

Spark, David, ‘Man of Africa’, Sight and Sound, Spring 1987, 80-81.

‘African Tribe on Move’, The Times, 9 February 1951, 5. 



  • KIGEZI (Alternative)
  • KIGEZI STORY (Alternative)

Technical Data

Running Time:
74 minutes
Colour (Ferraniacolor)
6711 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Sound Recording
Assistant Director
Assistant Editor
FRY, Geoffrey
Assistant Editor
WINTER, Robert
Associate Producer
Author of the Original Work
Camera Assistant
BAYLEY, Richard
Camera Assistant
WOOSTER, Arthur G.
cast member
cast member
cast member
BIJURENDA, Frederick
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
MPAMBARA, Seperiera
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
SABAJJI, Filomena
ARNOLD, Malcolm
HEATH, Gordon
Production Assistant
MPAMBARA, Seperiera
Production Company
Group 3
Production Manager
SLATER, Montagu
STEVEN, Anthony
Technical Adviser
BITEYI, William
Technical Adviser