Sunday I saw a great film by Frances-Anne Solomon called “Hero: Inspired by the Extraordinary Life and Times of Mr. Ulric Cross,” at the ongoing 26th African Film Festival New York.
The festival continues through June 4 at Lincoln Center and then moves to the Maysles Cinema in Harlem from June 6 through 9. Ulric was a Caribbean Pan-African from Trinidad who is not as well-known as the legendary George Padmore and C.L.R. James, both of whom feature prominently –through actors– in the film. Ulric was one of the young Caribbean Africans –the list includes Jamaica’s Dudley Thompson and many others– who ended up working with men like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta as Africa was formally decolonized beginning with Ghana in 1957.
The young Caribbeans had much in common with the first generation of African leaders. In addition to having the added burden of history as descendants of enslaved Africans, the Caribbeans shared with Africans the experience of living under the yoke of European colonialism and imperialism. They had also experienced the same lies, the false claim of the White Man’s burden –that colonial domination was meant to civilize African peoples. Another big lie occurred after Caribbeans and Africans fought for Britain’s and France’s survival during World War II, only to be thrust back into their colonial status of marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation after the Allied victory over Hitler.
So it was not difficult to see how a generation of educated, ambitious, idealistic Caribbeans would accept George Padmore’s call that they go to Africa and work with Nkrumah to build a United States of Africa; a new giant who would be able to protect its sovereignty and end European exploitation of the continent’s wealth. The resources of Africa would be used to create wealth and prosperity for Africans.
The film uses archival footage and re-enactments of some of the events such as the 1945 Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester sponsored by Guyana-born T. Ras Makonnen that brought together Padmore, C.L.R. James, Nkrumah, W.E.B. Du Bois and other Pan-African luminaries. Ulric himself is interviewed when he is in his 90s by his daughter –who was born in Tanzania in 1974– and his British born wife is also interviewed by the daughter who narrates the film.
There are many stories told in this film–the story of British imperialism in the Caribbean and Africa; the story of an exciting time in Africa, emerging from colonialism, and experiencing, for a few short years, the possibilities of creating a new powerful entity, the United States of Africa–a potential giant, if not superpower.
The film is also about the betrayals of the hope for African unity; or at least its deferral to a distant future. This epic is presented through Ulric’s life story.
After fighting for Britain in World War II on the Royal Air Force –he earned the distinction of becoming the most decorated Caribbean– Ulric couldn’t get a scholarship to study law in Trinidad. Even after he studied at night and passed the bar in the U.K. he couldn’t get a job as a lawyer. So he’s finally recruited by Padmore to go lend his legal skills to Nkrumah’s government in Ghana. He is soon learning the limitations of power when he clashes with the Asantehene and the British gold monopolies who benefitted by dealing directly with the Ashanti rather than through the central government. This was also the era when the Cold War intensified in Africa and Congo became a hotbed for this contest between the West and the East. When Lumumba is deposed by the U.S.-, U.K.-, and Belgian- agent Mobutu, Ulric is dispatched to Congo to assess the feasibility of Ghanaian intervention. It was too late and Lumumba is murdered. United Nations peace keepers are already deployed in Congo; but they serve merely as cover for Lumumba’s enemies to consolidate.
Throughout, Ulric, Padmore, and other Caribbeans who worked with African leaders to break the chains of European neocolonialism were monitored by the CIA and British intelligence services. When Padmore became seriously ill and died, Ulric and Padmore’s wife believe he had been poisoned. Ulric also started fearing for his own life.
Ulric loaned by Nkrumah to Cameroon, where he helped draft the new constitution to meld the French and the English zones in that country, as attorney general. He embarks on a Caribbean mission and recruits several bright lawyers to help lay the foundation of government in Cameroon. He is there when the Ghana coup occurred in 1966. Meanwhile, President Ahmadou Ahidjo in Cameroon had become frustrated with the limits of constitutional rule and was drifting toward dictatorship. Ulric quits as attorney general. He has a bitter row with his wife who initially refused to leave with him. She was a trained nurse and had found her purpose in life, after having helped build a hospital in the country.
Ulric’s final African destination was Tanzania. President Julius Nyerere had introduced Ujamaa, African socialism, to break from Western imperial domination. Ulric helped draft laws to protect industrial workers. Later, Nyerere appointed him dean of the law department at the national university in Dar es Salaam, the capital. He was in Tanzania when Eduardo Mondlane, the first leader of FRELIMO, the Mozambican liberation army, was assassinated when the Portuguese colonial intelligence services sent him a letter bomb.
While in Tanzania, Ulrice learned that one of his close friends, Jamaican born, and fellow soldier during World War II, was an agent for MI6, the British spy agency. The Tanzanian authorities foiled a coup plot that his “friend” was involved in.
This is a film every Pan-African must find a way to see.
The forces of global imperialism won the first round. Lumumba, murdered and replaced with Mobutu; Nkrumah, deposed by his generals, backed by the CIA. Military coups proliferated and Africa was ruled, not by visionary men who wanted to uplift the entire continent, but tyrants who served foreign masters, either in the West or the East.
This film can also inspire a new generation of Africans and Caribbeans. The youth are today engaged in a struggle to rid Africa of corrupt ineffective puppet-dictators. In Sudan recently dictator Gen. Omar Bashir was swept away. In Uganda the youth, who make up more than 80% of the population –83% of whom are unemployed– are locked in a final struggle with U.S.-puppet Gen. Yoweri Museveni.
Conscious Caribbeans and other Diaspora Africans could emulate Ulric’s generation –by finding a way to work with Africa’s youth in their second struggle for independence. This time from African-bred tyranny.
This is how Pan-Africanism can be rekindled.