Kipling's drear epitaph for the failed 19th century dream of a white empire in a non-white world observed mordantly: "A fool lies here who tried to hustle the East."
But the white man's burden crushed both ways, as a later ironist, the British novelist Joyce Cary, understood. His "Mister Johnson" is a tragedy about a fool who tried to hustle the West.
As adapted into a film by two still-later ironists, screenwriter (and novelist) William Boyd and director Bruce Beresford, the story still carries considerable bite; it's an accumulation of dry, bitter ironies about the rulers, the ruled and those in between, set in the West Africa of the '20s.
Mister Johnson (Maynard Eziashi) is that halfway figure so magnetic to misery; he's a black clerk for the district magistrate. He has identified so passionately with his oppressors that in his imagination he has become British. He shuffles about in a white linen suit and black brogues, tie knotted primly in the sub-Saharan heat, lording it over his barefoot brothers while sucking up with a pedant's zeal to his masters, who, though decent enough, hardly notice him.
The magistrate, Harry Rudbeck, is played by a low-keyed Pierce Brosnan. Poor Harry: He's not an evil man, he's just locked into an evil duty -- but no concepts yet exist by which that evil may be calculated. Thus he suffers from the melancholy of the ruling class that Orwell captured so well in "Shooting an Elephant": vague unease. Harry is charged with bringing civilization to a riotous sea of colors and cultures and tribal traditions. His task is to "improve" the natives by making them more like him and it consistently befuddles him that they don't want to be like him.
Mister Johnson, therefore, lives peppily between white rulers and black rulees, a kind of facilitator not only for his masters but for himself. They steal a lot and institutionalize the practice by calling it "an empire"; he steals a little and it is called "theft."
The movie is a collection of such paradoxes. They cannot understand why he can't be "good." He can't understand why he is "bad." It further somewhat bamboozles him that when his thefts help the rulers, they ignore them; as when, in perfect innocence of bookkeeping procedures, he diverts funds from one imperial project to another, to pay for his idol Harry's damned road. But when he charges just a penny's tax for using the same road whose building he has so heroically facilitated, they fire him -- with rueful regrets, while making ironic and truly funny remarks, but nevertheless they do can him.
We know from the start that Mister Johnson's inability to grasp the pure essence of Western hypocrisy will doom him, and it does. The movie proceeds from epiphanies to crucifixions, lubricated by dry gin fizzes, while at the same time making its viewers (or this one at least) desperate not to go liberate the masses but to spend a couple of thousand bucks at Banana Republic (the safari clothes in this film are great!)
Beresford's last movie also explored the no man's land between races in the sweet and gentle "Driving Miss Daisy." This one, far more astringent, could have been called "Hanging Mister Johnson." But Beresford shows the same deft gift here for evoking splendid work from his actors, particularly Eziashi, who is heartbreakingly earnest as Mister Johnson. It's hard to believe the same guy once made "Her Alibi."
Starring Pierce Brosnan and Maynard exiashi
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Released by Avenue Pictures