How can you make an honest film about racial problems when your location is South Africa?
Can a film possibly portray political problems fairly?
Does the popcorn-munching audience give a damn about southern Africa - black or white?
We're about to find out, because the drums are beating in the world's movie studios for a brand-new film genre - the "African."
Like the Western, the "African" offers wide-open spaces, lots of action and conflicts that can be portrayed, literally, in black and white.
"The Wild Geese," a film that glorifies mercenaries, starring Richard Harris, Richard Burton and Roger Moore, was widely seen in America and was a huge hit in Britain and Europe.
?Zulu Dawn," an elaborate re-creation of the British army's defeat by the "natives" in 1879, is coming up soon. It stars Peter O'Toole and Burt Lancastor.
"Game for Vultures," which pits a white Rhodesian gun-runner leader (Richard Harris) against a black guerrilla leader (Richard Roundtree), is being filmed now in the rough country surrounding Johannesburg.
Does "Game for Vultures" have anything to add to the world's understanding of southern Africa's problems? If so, what?
You'll get different answers from the movie's two stars. The film is about the conflict in Rhodesia - or is it Zimbabwe? roundtree is playing a terrorist - or is he a freedom fighter? Harris is playing a sanctions-buster - or is he a patriot?
To hear the two actors talk, they could almost be making two different movies. Like everything else in South Africa, it seems that the only way to make a movie there is through separate development.
Harris: "The world is crying out for a black Africa. What they'll get is a Red Africa."
Roundtree: "That's an easy cop-out. Its a perfect out, saying that the only alternative to racism is communism."
Harris: "The blacks in southern Africa will have the same lack of democracy under the Reds as they have under the whites."
Roundtree: "My character is about freedom. He's not into labels. He accepts help from what his opponents call 'outside forces.' He hates violence, but he says, 'Zimbabwe will triumph by whatever means.'"
Harris: "A movie isn't going to change anyone's opinions. People will think about it for a second and forget it the next time they see John Travolta."
Roundtree: "I just hope the movie comes out the way I read the script."
It's a litte sad that the current wave of films about southern Africa is being made by the British and the Americans, instead of the Africans themselves - especially black Africans.
Instead of romance and adventure - shoot-'em-ups with Zulus replacing Indians and arms smugglers replacing gunslingers - couldn't more realistic films be made about today's Africa? Where is the film of "Sizew Bansi Is Dead?"
Richard Roundtree, once the embodiment of black assertiveness when he played Shaft, has been inactive lately. Movie parts for blacks who aren't comedians have become rare.
"In America, we don't see very many black films any more. When they are black, they're only black insofar as the actors in them are black. For all the black life they show, the actors might as well be white."
That's why Roundtree is a little distrustful of this "Game for Vultures" project, even though it's given him his biggest film role since his "Shaft" glory days.
He's as aware as anyone else that by concentrating on adventure the "African" genre ignores the daily life of blacks in South Africa. For instance, Roundtree's daily life.
"I go out to the shabeens [saloons] in Soweta," he says. "We talk and we talk. I see the anger of their smiling faces, the anger that South African whites refuse to notice.
"Then I go back to my luxury hotel and order something from room service." Roundtree chuckles at the irony.
"Downtown Johannesburg looks like any midwestern city in America - with one big difference. Here, the black people are the only ones who walk. The whites drives cars or jog."
Roundtree recently went into a Johannesburg liquor store to pick up some beer. The man behind the counter wouldn't sell him any. He had to go into a separate entrance, Roundtree was told.
The hell with that, Roundtree thought. He sent his chauffeur around to the separate (black) entrance. The chauffeur also was refused entrance. The chauffeur was white, you see.
It's a funny old country, South Africa. Roundtree is coldly furious about apartheid, but the whites making "Game for Vultures" find the problem easier to cope with.
Typically, the producer, Hazel Adair, says, "I'm not a politician. I shouldn't give opinions."
The director, American James Fargo, says, "I'm not a political person at all. I never thought about Africa until I starteed to make this film."
What he's directing is a non-political political film. The issues are stated only in "throwaway" lines, Adair says. "The audience will come away with the idea that neither side is right," says Fargo.
That was the bipartisan conclusion of the "The Wild Geese," a dirty-dozen-type tale of mercenaries rescuing a deposed African head of state, in which the heroes were more villainous than the villains.
Relatively few North Americans saw the $12-million film because its distributor, Allied Artists, ran into financial difficulties just at the time the picture was released. However, NBC paid $2.5 million for the right to televise it in 1980, so American action addicts will find out then what the rest of the world found so appealing about it.
"Ashanti" is another Euripean-financed film in the "African" genre. Black doctor Beverly Johnson is kidnaped by slave trader Peter Ustinov, sold to rich Arab Omar Sharif, and rescued by intreped husband Michael Caine.
The only Americans who saw it are those attracted by the lurid ad showing a practically topless woman. "Ashanti" was "made and sold as exploitation," one of the men behind the production admits.
"The human Factor" will perhaps be the first "Africanc to aspire to more than mere action and adventure. Based on the recent Graham Greene best seller, the film is being shot now in England and Kenya by Otto Preminger. Nicol Williamson plays a British secret-service man whose black wife was rescued from South Africa with Russian help. Is Williamson now a Russian agent?
"I originally wanted to shoot in South Africa, where part of the story is supposed to take place," says Preminger. "Then this silly business blew up about America spying on South Africa from the ambassador's plane. Silly. Now South Africa is very suspicious of Amerians, even me.
"Before that spying incident, South Africa had welcomed me. I sent the script to Pretoria. The story contains many hostile elements - interrogations and so forth - but you'll never guess which was the only scene that South Africa objected to. It was a scene showing a black woman and a white man in bed together. And of course that scene would be shot in a studio, not in South Africa.
"Nevertheless, the South African government demanded that I allow them to view all the film I would shoot in South Africa before it left the country. If they didn't like what I shot, they would confiscate it.
"I couldn't agree to that, so I began looking elsewhere. Now Nairobi is standing in for Pretoria."
Roger moore, star of "The Wild Geese," defends the principle of filming in South Africa. "I've filmed there three times now "Gold" and "Shout at the Devil" were Moore's other two "Africans") When we film there, there is absolutely no separateness. The black actors I have become friendly with say that the only way things will improve is if black people and white people have the chance to work together.
"It's very silly to attack a film because it uses South Africa as a location. When I was about to make 'Gold,' the British film technicians' union threatened to ban showings of the Bond films in Britain.
"The union thought we ought to make the film in Wales. It was a film about South African gold mining, and the union thought the Welsh coal mines would do as well. They thought the coal dust would make the Welshmen's faces as black as South African goldminer's.
"We were going to film "The Wild Geese' in Zaire. But then some hostilities commenced there, and we decided to go where it was safer. We ended up four miles from the Rhodesian border. All the combatants in our film were played by black South African army men. We felt very well protected in case any nastiness crept across the border."
Perhaps the last word on the film business' glancing involvement with the realities of Africa should come from Ray Milland. Two years ago, Milland was in Rhodesia. He was working in a picture called "Slavers", playing an Arab slave trader. "I was a damn good Arab too," says Milland.
Anyway, the last day of shooting this epic, Milland had to work till 3 a.m. to finish his final scene. "I was packed to leave the country. I jumped in the Land Rover for the drive throught the bush to Fort Victoria, where I was going to catch a plane.
"We had to cross a bridge on the way. The bridge carried all the telephone and power lines for that part of Rhodesia. Just as our front wheels were coming up to the bridge, the rebels blew it up.
"Luckily the water below was only a foot deep and the Land Rover was able to get across. We missed the plane anyway." CAPTION: Picture 1, Like the old Westerns, the new African films have lots of shoot-'em-up action. Richard Harris takes aim in "Game for Vultures"; Picture 2, a scene from "The Wild Geese."; Illustration, no caption, Hal Hoover - The Washington Post; Picture 3, Richard Roundtree in "Game for Vultures."