For a brief period in the early ’70s, actor Ossie Davis pursued a sideline career as a feature-film director, generating a handful of socially conscious projects with questionable storytelling and uneven performances. His behind-the-camera aptitude never quite rose to the sophistication of his politics, but each of the features he helmed is interesting to some degree. Arguably the most problematic of Davis’ directorial endeavors is Kongi’s Harvest, the first movie ever made in Nigeria by a predominantly Nigerian crew. Adapted from a significant play by Wole Soyinka and completed in 1970, the film didn’t reach American screens until 1973, and one gets the impression lots of post-production tinkering happened along the way.
As in Soyinka’s play, the story takes place in a fictional African nation. Kongi (played by Soyinka) is a military strongman who seized control in a coup, deposing beloved King Oba Danlola (Rasidi Onikoyi), whom Kongi holds prisoner in a heavily guarded compound. As the occasion of an important annual harvest festival nears, Kongi schemes to receive the gift of the first yam, because doing so represents his ascension to the godlike status of the nation’s rightful ruler. Naturally, King Oba and his supporters resist Kongi’s plan, so as the story progresses, Kongi becomes more and more unhinged—desperation compels him to blackmail King Oba by threatening mass executions of political prisoners unless King Oba consents for Kongi to receive the yam.
The intense narrative was particularly topical at the time the film was made, and as the recent fall of Robert Mugabe indicates, it’s not as if the blight of brutal dictatorships has left the African continent. Alas, good intentions don’t always make for good movies, which is where Kongi’s Harvest hits difficulties. Davis assembled a large cast of Nigerian actors for the movie, and some are smoother on camera than others. Soyinka dominates, churning through maniacal lectures and tantrums with such intensity that his passion for satirizing dictators is palpable. Nonetheless, some of the Kongi scenes are so over-the-top as to seem cartoonish, and Davis’ directorial hand isn’t sufficiently assured to fold farcical elements into the bleak narrative. Occasionally, Kongi’s Harvest feels like a compendium of footage from two or three different directors’ interpretations of the same material.
Not helping matters are clumsy onscreen appearances by Davis, who shows up at random intervals to deliver narration directly into the camera. (Davis also provides the voice for a few news broadcasts and radio announcements.) Perhaps most troubling of all is the ending, which is considerably different than that of the original play—whereas the stage version ends on a note of grim absurdity, Davis’ move signs off with something much more conventional and heavy-handed.
Kongi’s Harvest: FUNKY