Our Man in Kinjaja

You can't really blame the distributors of A Good Man in Africa for emphasizing the presence of Sean Connery in the film's cast. After all he's perfect for the role of high-principled Dr. Alex Murray, the only white man in the emerging West African nation of Kinjanja who cannot be bought. And he's got star power to burn.

Talk about the perfect match of man and material: Like the character he plays, Connery is a virile, enigmatic Scotsman with a reputation for not suffering fools gladly. As a young man Connery made an indelible mark as lady-killing superspy James Bond; it seemed for years as if the moviegoing public would never accept him in any other role. But now, in late middle age, he seems to have hit his stride with the noble-loner-against-the-corrupt-system shtick (The Untouchables, The Name of the Rose, The Hunt for Red October, Medicine Man, Rising Sun) and appears content to ride that horse till it pulls up lame. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, assuming he chooses scripts carefully and avoids overexposure. There are worse things in life than playing a one-note song really well.

Commanding presence that he may be, however, Connery is not the star of A Good Man in Africa. Contrary to what the film's publicity may lead you to believe, that distinction belongs to a previously unheralded (outside of his native Australia, at least) actor named Colin Friels, whose thoroughly winning performance as the opportunistic British diplomat Morgan Leafy could be a career-maker. Deftly mixing charm with smarm, Friels is a revelation as a cynical midlevel diplomat whose frustration and disillusionment with his job have robbed him of passion for anything but sex and alcohol.

You can hardly blame him. Leafy's life is a mess. His boss is, in Leafy's words, a "supercilious twit." Leafy suspects one of his beautiful African mistresses -- he calls his local lovers "compensation" for his being stuck in such a godforsaken post -- of nfidelity, which has resulted in his contracting a nasty and potentially untreatable strain of gonorrhea. To make matters worse, she's beginning to badger him about going out in public "like man and woman." What's a self-respecting white racist rummy womanizer to do?

A bout with venereal disease is nothing, however, compared to the trouble Leafy's penis gets him into when the soon-to-be new first lady of Kinjanja seduces him. Her husband, president-elect Adekunle, is a corrupt hypocrite who knows how to play ball with the wealthy nations -- England chief among them A who want to tie up rights to the huge oil reserves recently discovered off the coast of his country. He is not above using Leafy's tryst with Mrs. Adekunle as leverage to obtain a big favor from the Brit diplomat. The favor, of course, requires Leafy to prevail upon a certain Scottish doctor to join forces with the bad guys (which, in this case, means just about everyone).

Friels and Connery are a treat as the malleable career facilitator and the intractable straight-shooter. It is not their fault that A Good Man in Africa is yet another movie about Africa in which the main characters are white people (A Dry White Season, A World Apart, Cry Freedom, Out of Africa). The few blacks with speaking parts fit snugly into all the customary stereotypes A loyal servant, earthy lover, greedy leader, wide-eyed juju magic practitioners. It should come as no surprise then that the film was directed by Bruce Beresford, whose Driving Miss Daisy also treated a racially charged scenario with the cinematic equivalent of benign neglect.

Beresford and screenwriter William Boyd (who wrote the novel upon which the movie is based) have wrought a minor miracle. They have crafted a movie about modern Africa with only one major black character. He's the villain, of course. And, to dodge reality further, the part is played by an American -- Louis Gossett, Jr. It's as if Beresford's and Boyd's views are in sync with Leafy's: Black Africans are harmless intellectual lightweights unqualified to oversee their own affairs -- incapable, even, of portraying themselves properly on-screen.

Really, A Good Man in Africa has so much going for it. The dialogue is smart (Murray on happiness: "Show me the man who's completely content and I'll show you the lobotomy scar"). The narrative is sufficiently quirky to maintain interest when the going gets a little slow. And Beresford and Boyd -- an Aussie and a Scot --- have big fun at the expense of British imperialism, pomposity, and formality. It's a shame about the color blindness, though.

 
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