Director Bruce Beresford's underrated and little-seen follow-up to DRIVING MISS DAISY, MISTER JOHNSON is a more subdued and melancholy historical drama about the ways in which racist social systems prevent even kind-hearted people of different races from becoming friends.
In the West African village of Fada in 1923, "Mister Johnson" (Maynard Eziashi) works as a clerk for Harry Rudbeck (Pierce Brosnan), a British administrator. Though he is treated with no special respect by his white overseers, the ambitious Johnson insists on maintaining a strict pretense that he
is British to the bone. According to local custom, he buys a wife, but insists on a traditional Christian wedding ceremony. He endears himself to his fellow villagers by spending his pay on big parties. Falling behind in his "wife payments" he must find new ways to make money. He sells British
diplomatic correspondence to Waziri (Femi Fatoba), the slippery emissary to the local emir. Meanwhile, he ingratiates himself with Rudbeck by making his wife comfortable and juggling the books so that his boss will have enough money to finish building the "great nothern road" he envisions.
When Tring (Nick Reding), an officious inspector, discovers Johnson's ploy, the clerk is turned out. He goes to work at the general store for the racist Sargy Gollup (Edward Woodward), but earns respect for his unflagging loyalty to Britain. Johnson robs from Gollup to pay for another party and
is again turned out when caught. After some time away, he is welcomed back by Rudbeck, who makes him an overseer on the road construction. When Tring cuts off funds for the road, Johnson rescues Rudbeck's project by convincing local laborers to finish the job without pay.
Despite this success, Mister Johnson continues his entrepreneurial embezzlement. Again Rudbeck banishes him. Desperate for money, he robs Gollup and in panic kills him. When captured, he calmly confesses. Even in jail he remains inexplicably dedicated to the British ideals he has internalized.
Facing the humiliation of public hanging, he begs his old friend Rudbeck to shoot him instead. The officer reluctantly complies.
This contemplative drama of African race relations under colonial rule combines qualities of two of Beresford's better-known films, BREAKER MORANT and DRIVING MISS DAISY. Like the former, MISTER JOHNSON represents the British Empire as a hypocritical system of rule, one which calls upon its
officers in remote and difficult circumstances to show initiative and occasionally bend the law until it breaks. When such deeds are revealed, higher-ups sacrifice foot soldiers as scapegoats, and the scapegoats accept it with a stiff upper lip.
Just as Beresford's Morant was executed for killing the enemy during South Africa's Boer War, so his Johnson is punished for his irregular methods of financing British road construction. Never mind that his white superiors approved, or that the Empire benefitted from the expansion in African
trade. But, as in DRIVING MISS DAISY, race divides inhabitants of this social caste system even more severely than class. Yet in both of these films, even in the face of an oppressive racism, an unspoken friendship develops between the benign white employer and the loyal black servant.
However, the Mister Johnson portrayed by Maynard Eziashi is a far more complex and ambiguous character than Morgan Freeman's quietly dignified chauffeur. To both the humane Rudbeck, intelligently played by Pierce Brosnan, and the abusive drunkard Gollup, Johnson is a cipher. The latter cannot
fathom how a man he considers his racial inferior can be such a good Britisher (better, in fact, than his own alcoholic, wife-beating self). Rudbeck puzzles in frustration over how such a good citizen as Johnson--the helpful, enterprising, loyalist clerk--can continually lapse into criminality.
The film at times also leaves its audience wondering why Mister Johnson, who clearly is an integral leader within his own culture, remains so devoted to English custom, clothes, God, King and country.
Yet for a man so trapped between two strong cultural and political forces--he is literally a go-between for the traditionalist African emir and British bureaucrats--his conflicted behavior seems true to the complicated realities of history. In that respect, the troubling bond that develops
between this film's white and black protagonists is more true-to-life, and even more moving, than the gentilities of the more widely seen DRIVING MISS DAISY. (Violence, profanity, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Director Bruce Beresford's underrated and little-seen follow-up to DRIVING MISS DAISY, MISTER JOHNSON is a more subdued and melancholy historical drama about the ways in which racist social systems prevent even kind-hearted people of different races from b… (more)