Saturday, March 10, 2018

Countdown at Kusini (1975)

          After helming three films in America, Ossie Davis ventured to Africa for his next two directorial endeavors, beginning with Kongi’s Harvest (1973), which explores a dictator’s efforts to neutralize a political rival. Countdown at Kusini attacks similar themes from the opposite direction, dramatizing the circumstances of a rebel leader hiding from enemies. Like Kongi’s Harvest, this picture represents an admirable effort to involve Africans in the filmmaking process, and it’s also politically insightful. However Countdown at Kusini shares shortcomings with its predecessor. The storyline is discombobulated, the themes are murky, and lengthy scenes of local color impede narrative momentum.
          Countdown at Kusini follows operatives who protect Ernest Motapo (Davis). Leah (Ruby Dee) is a slick undercover agent, and Red (Greg Morris) is an American jazz musician who moonlights as a spy working for Motapo. At one point, these two help smuggle Motapo from a neighboring country into his homeland, illustrating the danger he faces if his whereabouts become known. Naturally, a love story develops between Leah, who is wholeheartedly devoted to her cause, and Red, who is more ambivalent about risking death. Driving much of the plot is the presence of Ben Amed (Tom Aldredge), a sadistic mercenary determined to kill Motapo, not just because he’s been hired to do so, but also because Motapo once escaped him. Seeing as how four writers worked on the script, it’s no surprise the simple espionage-thriller premise at the heart of this movie gets crowded by discursive material, though it appears undisciplined editing contributed to the muddiness.
          The best scenes in Countdown at Kusini suggest the acerbic little potboiler the picture could have been. In one bit, Motapo operatives ask an arms dealer for a price break because their cause is righteous, and he expresses empathy—up to a point. “I would like Motapo even more,” he says, “if once a while his people paid their bills.” Similarly, scenes of Motapo interacting with family members provide surprising views on divided loyalties. Had this picture been whittled down from its sluggish 101-minute release version, the zip of the Dee/Morris scenes—chases, explosions, fights, romance—would have provided a structure supporting the more thoughtful Motapo scenes. Instead, Countdown and Kusini goes on and on and on, losing focus with each unnecessary flashback and each documentary-style montage of everyday African life.

Countdown at Kusini: FUNKY

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