Lionel Ngakane

Pioneering film-maker
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The Independent Online

Lionel Ngakane, actor and film director: born Pretoria 17 July 1928; died Rustenburg, South Africa 26 November 2003.

When Lionel Ngakane first came to Britain from South Africa in 1950 to work as a journalist, he heard that Zoltan Korda was planning to direct a film version of Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country. Korda agreed to be interviewed by Ngakane about the production, and was so impressed with the young man that he offered him an acting role in the film - as Absalom, the "lost" son of the village priest, the Rev Stephen Kumalo (Canada Lee), who is imprisoned and executed for killing a white man. The scenes between Ngakane and Lee in the prison are beautifully acted with deeply felt performances. But off-screen Lionel Ngakane's ambitions lay elsewhere. He wanted to become a film director.

Ngakane was born in Pretoria in 1928. His parents worked as teachers and, after moving to Johannesburg in 1936, his father set up a hostel for young delinquents with Alan Paton. It was around this time that Ngakane's passion for cinema began. One day his father came home with a 35mm projector as a present for his son. Lionel then collected small strips of film and projected them on to a wall at home, upsetting his family when the film burned in the projector.

At Fort Hare University College and the University of the Witwatersrand, Ngakane studied political philosophy, geography and "native administration", but these hardly prepared him for his job as Head of Wheels (maintenance) on the Johannesburg buses. As a freelance journalist Ngakane contributed to Zonk and Drum, two of South Africa's most successful black journals, and it was as a journalist that he came to Britain, met Zoltan Korda and accepted his first acting role in Cry, the Beloved Country (1951).

Settling back in Britain after working on Korda's film, Ngakane planned to become a film-maker, but he faced difficulties. When I interviewed him for the journal Black Arts in London in 1988, he explained:

I couldn't get any sponsorship from the South African government, or anybody else. Instead I bought a 16mm camera, and experimented. To earn a living I continued working as an actor, but in Britain in those days it was very difficult to survive as an actor because there was so little work. I acted in a few stage plays every now and again, including good ones by black writers like Errol John (Moon on a Rainbow Shawl), Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) and Wole Soyinka (The Lion and the Jewel), but mostly it was hell.

In the mid-1950s Ngakane acted in a few British films made on location in Africa with titles such as Duel in the Jungle (1954), Safari (1956) and Odongo (1956), but he felt these exploited Africa, and provided nothing more than exotic backdrops for visiting Hollywood stars such as Dana Andrews and Victor Mature. He said,

They were romantic films about animals and love affairs in the jungle but working on these films enabled me to observe and learn something about the technical side of film-making.

Very little attention has been given to Ngakane's participation as the lead actor in Dark London (1952), a 16-minute film directed by John Haggarty and dealing with the lives of black settlers in Britain in the early post-war years. As a "jobbing" actor in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, however, Ngakane appeared on television in everything from Quatermass and the Pit, Dixon of Dock Green and Danger Man to plays by African writers including Obi Egbuna (Wind versus Polygamy, 1968). Similarly, his radio career, which began with King Solomon's Mines (1956), progressed to more rewarding roles in several plays by African writers including Wole Soyinka (The Lion and the Jewel, 1966) and Bloke Modisane (The Quarter-Million Boys, 1969).

In 1962, after spending several years experimenting with his camera, Ngakane achieved his real ambition, and released his first film, becoming one of the first black film-makers in Britain, alongside Edric Connor and Lloyd Reckord:

The result of experimenting with my 16mm camera was a short film called Sunday in London, and this gave me the confidence to make a film by myself. I visited my home in South Africa and made a documentary called Vukani/Awake, the first film about the political situation in South Africa made from an African's point of view.

For his second film, Ngakane turned his attention to the situation of Britain's black community. He said, "I wanted to make a film about the relationship between black and white people in Britain, and the lack of understanding between them." The result was Jemima and Johnny (1966), filmed in 35mm in black and white, with no dialogue, a charming short drama about the friendship between a black girl and a white boy in the Notting Hill area of London. Ngakane said:

It was the official entry for Britain in the Venice Film Festival, and won first prize for Best Short Feature. I was thrilled that we had won first prize for Britain, and confident that I would make more films. I had high hopes, but I never had one offer, or enquiry.

By the 1970s, Jemima and Johnny disappeared from view but in the late 1980s Ngakane's award-winning film was given a new lease of life by June Givanni of the British Film Institute's African-Caribbean Unit. Shown on Channel 4, and distributed on video, the film enjoyed a new-found popularity.

After the 1960s, Ngakane became a founder member of two important institutions in African cinema - the Pan-African Film-Makers' Federation and Fespaco, the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou - both of which encouraged links between the African continent and Europe. In 1988 he said in our interview:

Films like Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom [1987] deal with South Africa. It's political. But I have a criticism because the emphasis is on the white man and not Steve Biko. Other films, like Out of Africa [1985], are not about Africa at all. They're about white people in Africa. What is important for us now is that we have several important African film-makers who are dealing with our continent, our history, our culture, our arts. White film-makers come to Africa to exploit. We want to make films for our own people, not Leicester Square.

Stephen Bourne