Mister Johnson

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In 1920s West Africa a naïve clerk attempts to be more English than the English.


Colourful costumes and sunny plains: yet another addition to the Heat And Dust and White Mischief school of filmmaking, this depressingly manipulative movie is set in 1923 West Africa and tells the story of one naive soul whose delusions about himself and his place in the colonial world eventually lead to tragedy. Mister Johnson (Mayard Eziashi) is black, but he wears an expensive white suit and is very proud of his job as Chief Clerk to the British District Commissioner (Pierce Brosnan).

Regarding himself as 'English' for reasons which are never made clear, he loses his new wife because of the money he owes her father and then gets the elbow at work when he becomes the scapegoat for the underhand use of government funds to build a new road. However, refusing to let circumstances get the better of him, he keeps bouncing back with a supposedly winning smile and yet another smart get ahead scheme.

It fails abysmally because of the grinning shallowness of Eziashi's portrayal and, secondly and much more crucially, because the role he's been lumbered with is a demeaningly cheerful stereotype of the kind that should have gone out with Uncle Tom's Cabin. As the good Brit on the sidelines, Brosnan's Commissioner in short khaki trousers is pitched with an equal lack of success as the best side of colonialism ("When you've made a road, you know you've done something.") and comes complete with a prim and proper wife who doesn't like living in the Bush. The fact that she isn't played by Greta Scacchi is this acutely embarrassing film's only real surprise.

Based on the 1939 Joyce Carey novel, Bruce (Driving Miss Daisy) Beresford's stickily condescending film attempts to present Mr Johnson as an object both of pity and of admiration.