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‘Mister Johnson’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 26, 1991

One day, there'll be an English-language film set in Africa that isn't about colonialism or big game hunting. Until that time, look for films such as "Mister Johnson." Although this colonial satire has intelligent aims, it's always a degree or two off the mark.

The story, set in an African village in the 1920s, is about the relationship between Nigerian clerk Maynard Eziashi and British district officer Pierce Brosnan. Eziashi, known by everyone (even his wife) as Mister Johnson, has taken his missionary education too far. He wears a pith helmet and white suit. He adulates everything Britannic. He considers England his home. But he isn't above filching from his hallowed superiors.

Brosnan's dream project is to build a road from the village to a nearby town. But he runs short of official funds. Eziashi, who has a reverential regard for his boss, shows Brosnan the beauty of embezzlement. A road is born. But troubles present themselves almost continuously for Eziashi. He runs afoul of John Bull-racist Edward Woodward. His wife constantly returns to her family because Eziashi falls behind on bridal payments. And the clerk can't keep his fingers out of the till.

Director Bruce Beresford reexamines the stereotypical master-slave dynamic in much the same way he did in "Driving Miss Daisy." But there's still an overall feeling of condescending benevolence. Georges Delerue's music is also a patronizing giveaway. It seems blissfully lush and stirring at the wrong moments.

Eziashi is appropriately sunny and chauvinistic. "Hertfordshire," he declares of the British county, "is one of the most beautiful villages back home."

He says this while accepting a piece of plum pudding from Brosnan. But in the context of Beresford's direction, his performance is devoid of meaning. The truest effort comes from Woodward, who has his finger right on lower-class, unconscious bigotry.

"Treat 'em right, I always say," he declares of all dark races. "And they're not 'alf as black as they look."

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