director Walter Futter
What a remarkable artifact. Africa Speaks! is many things and is wide open for a variety of perspectives, interpretations, and critiques. For one, the elusive notion of what a documentary is has never been well-defined or remotely unproblematic.
Speaking of problematic? The inherent racism of the film is almost unfathomable, so steeped in American/Western culture of the time, while peering in on “Exotica”. Here are a few snippets of the voice-over narration:
“Everybody dances in Pygmyland!”
“Yes, they have some bananas! You can tell by their fat tummies!”
“Besides, they were tired: L-A-Z-Y, TIRED!”
The film does indeed contain documentary footage of wild animals in Africa and scenes of African tribespeople, from Pygmies to Maori warriors. It also contains scenes shot on some Hollywood backlot of the two purported filmmakers shooting all of the footage and occasionally interacting with “natives”. While this was probably done for entertainment and narrative coherence purposes, it winds up spelling out the racist attitudes in even more pointed ways.
The footage of the animals and the peoples is informative in its own way. It’s possible that this is one of the first feature film documents of wildlife, doubtlessly so much more abundant and unimpacted than ever after (though it’s also interesting noting the poaching of ivory was already pretty intense). And the peoples of the tribes, again, the film captures images from a world long gone, a time when isolated cultures hadn’t become as integrated and homogenized.
Africa Speaks! is a pre-code film from Columbia, so its obscurity and existence in the public domain may have more to do with a realization of its inherent problematic nature. Who knows? It was apparently quite a hit in its day and inspired later parodies or at least cultural references.
As a public domain artifact, it’s in pretty rough shape. It might be a worthy recipient of refurbishment, despite its problematic nature.
I couldn’t help but think of Goodbye, Uncle Tom (1971), a bit in looking at this, though maybe it’s closer to Africa Addio (1966) instead. It’s a world away and yet shares aspects of exploitation and perspective, trying to explain the wild “dark continent” to the West through condescending eyes with the goal of entertainment, featuring about as much misinformation as information. A prime example of this, and part of the reason I’m tagging this as “exploitation” though it’s not necessarily considered an exploitation film is the “Ubangi” people with their “lip plate” body modification, such a highlight as to make it the primary image of the poster.
In some ways, moderately “mondo” before “mondo”.
There is so much here, this fascinating cultural artifact, way more obscure than it should be.