A GOOD MAN IN AFRICA, like the decent chap its culture-clash satire spins around, perished unceremoniously in 1994, a box-office disaster, dunned by reviewers, and disavowed by its director. Well, the public—their atrophied funny bones entranced by Forrest Gump, The Mask and The Flintstones—missed the bus, the taste-bud dulled critics needed a few gins to lighten up, and director Bruce Beresford’s coup de grace apology feels oddly masochistic. *
‘Kinjanja’, West Africa. Though the mineral-rich country is free of British colonial rule, and ready to mess things up with their own homegrown corruption, vestiges of the Empire hang on in diplomatic posts, hoping to influence policy. Cynical, dissipated underling ‘Morgan Leafy’ (Colin Friels) is tasked by pompous ‘Arthur Fanshawe’ (John Lithgow) to make nice with native politician ‘Sam Adekunle’ (Louis Gossett Jr.), as well as solving pesky taboo issues before a Royal Visit. Standing in the way of a smooth power realignment is ‘Dr. Alex Murray’ (Sean Connery) who is cursed with brusque honesty and a sense of morality. Leafy has his hands full.
William Boyd did the adaptation of his award-winning 1981 debut novel, a wickedly delightful 352-page satire set in a thinly veiled Nigeria (when Lagos was dealing with the oil boom). Boyd had life extensive life experience in Ghana and Nigeria and four years earlier had written the screenplay for another Africa-colonial comedy, the well-reviewed Mister Johnson, also directed by Beresford.
Sour grapes critics didn’t give it much slack, and the advertising was misleading—pushing Connery front & center–along with elephants (because, Africa)—leaving audiences feeling cheated, as Sean was just in a few scenes and there were no pachyderms, lions or zebras. The Australian leading man, 41-year-old Colin Friels (married to Judy Davis) was unfairly clobbered; Friels took it not just on the chin, but on shins and knees for good measure. It isn’t as keenly funny as Boyd’s hornet of a book, but there are a good number of chuckles, the cast look to be enjoying themselves, and with $20,000,000 laid on, it’s a handsome production, nicely photographed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, shooting on location in South Africa. John du Prez provides a pleasing score. Alas, a major bomb, grossing but $2,308,390, 169th place for ’94.
With Joanne Whalley, Sarah-Jane Fenton, Diana Rigg (regrettably too little use made of her), Jackie Mofokeng, Maynard Eziashi, and Daphne Greenwood. Brief, at 94 minutes, weakened by the abrupt finish.
* Beresford—–“God, that was horrible. That was the worst film experience I ever had. It was cast wrong, the crew was all strange. We were filming in the wrong place. We filmed in South Africa, it was set in West Africa. Which is like shooting in Alaska when it’s set in New Orleans. And I realized that although the novel that it’s based on is terribly funny, it was very anecdotal. It had no narrative. I think on about the second day I realized it was never going to work, because the scenes don’t link. I thought, “I’m sunk! I’m never gonna get out.” Hakuna matata, Bruce: I’ll take this cheeky tweaking of post-colonial noses over the cringe-inducing “yassums” of your Driving Miss Daisy any day.
In terms of box-office results for a Connery picture, this offbeat, ignored, often pilloried satire ranks dead last, a shame. Several Sean fizzles deserved their fiscal fate—Meteor, The Avengers, Wrong Is Right, Shalako—-but some of his more interesting films and impressive work as an actor also went Double-O-zip when audiences skipped the likes of The Hill, The Molly Maguires, The Red Tent, The Name Of The Rose, Five Days One Summer and The Offence. While the droll send-up of A Good Man In Africa isn’t up to snuff with most of those, and Sean’s few quick scenes basically constitute a star-power cameo, his relaxed authority fits the character and will please his fans.