Kongi's Harvest - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

Nigeria, 1970

Director: Ossie Davis

Production: Calpenny-Nigeria Films Ltd (Nigeria); color; running time: 85 minutes. Released 1970.

Producers: Francis Oladele, Arthur Dubons, and Lennart Berns; screenplay: Wole Soyinka, from his own play; assistant directors: Dandy E. Oyegunle and Tunde Adeniji; photography: Åke Dahlquist; editors: Sharon Sachs, Jerry Gränsman, and Gboyega Arulogun; sound: Bo Abrahamsson; art directors: D. Lindersay and J. K. Ogunbiyi; costumes: Danny Moquette, Agbo Folarin, Ayo Aderemi, and Fadeke Akinwunmi.

Cast: Wole Soyinka ( Kongi ); Rashidi Onikoyi ( Oba Danlola ); Banjo Solaru ( Sarumi ); Femi Johnson ( Organising Secretary ); Nina Baden-Semper ( Segi ); Dapo Adelugba ( Daodu ); Orlando Martins ( Dr. Gbenge ); Wale Ogunyemi ( Dende ).



Soyinka, Wole, Kongi's Harvest , London, 1967.

Gibbs, James, Kongi's Harvest by Wole Soyinka (typescript), Kenneth Library, University of Ibadan, n.d. (c. 1969).

Gibbs, James, Study Guide to Kongi's Harvest , London, 1973.

Gibbs, James, Wole Soyinka , Basingstoke, London, 1986.

Ekwuazi, Hyginus O., Film in Nigeria , 2d ed., Jos, Nigeria, 1991.


Davis, Ossie, "When Is a Camera a Weapon?" in New York Times , 20 September 1970.

"People," in West Africa , no. 2821, 1971.

Soyinka, Wole, "Class Discussion," in In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington , edited by Karen L. Morell, Seattle, Washington, 1975.

Soyinka, Wole, "Theatre and the Emergence of the Nigerian Film Industry," in The Development and Growth of the Film Industry in Nigeria: Proceedings of a Seminar on the Film Industry and Cultural Identity in Nigeria , edited by Alfred E. Opubor and Onuora E. Nwuneli, Lagos and New York, 1979.

Gugler, Josef, "Wole Soyinka's Kongi's Harvest from Stage to Screen: Four Endings to Tyranny," in Canadian Journal of African Studies , vol. 31, 1997.

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Kongi's Harvest is an important film because it is the most significant attempt to date to take a play by Wole Soyinka—Africa's preeminent playwright and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1986—to the screen. Soyinka's eponymous play was the first of several to denounce tyranny, and was perhaps the most distinguished aesthetically. Kongi's Harvest analyzes the degeneration of personal rule in independent Africa and satirizes the resulting tyranny in terms of the confrontation between a populist politician and a traditional ruler. When Kongi's Harvest was first performed in Nigeria in 1965 it was topical: just a few years after independence authoritarian one-man regimes had imposed themselves in a number of African countries. By the time the film was released in 1970, such regimes had become common throughout the region.

Kongi's Harvest is, as the playwright put it, a play "about Power, Pomp and Ecstasy": the power of autocratic president Kongi, the pomp of detained king Danlola, the ecstasy of Segi and Daodu who oppose the dictator. It is one of Soyinka's finest plays. The film, unfortunately, must be considered a failure. It follows the play closely in most respects but falls far short of its accomplishments and betrays it in the end. Still, it conveys Soyinka's bitter satire of the recurrent features of dictatorships—the sycophants surrounding the dictator, the dictator's megalomania, the ideological isms invoked to justify absolute-ism , the propaganda blared at the population, the repression of dissent, and the economic concomitants of such political features: mismanagement and corruption.

The film was directed by the distinguished African-American actor Ossie Davis, who appears as narrator in the early scenes. He had come to Nigeria full of enthusiasm to direct what was to be one of the very first major motion pictures produced in Africa South of the Sahara by an African film company, Francis Oladele's Calpenny-Nigeria Films. Arthur DuBow of Herald Productions had raised the funds in the U.S. and Lennart Berns of Omega Film in Sweden had furnished the crew. The film never had much exposure. In the 1970s, New Line Cinema provided limited distribution in the United States, before the film was withdrawn from distribution altogether. By now it has all but disappeared. (It may be seen at the Film Archives of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria.)

The film conveys the pageantry of a Yoruba royal court: the royal drums, the royal dance and chant, most strikingly the praise song to the king, in Yoruba. And it departs from the play to take advantage of the opportunities the medium offers. It presents an aerial view of Ibadan, the largest metropolis in tropical Africa until the 1950s, including street and market scenes, preparations for the festival, a motorcade with motorcycle outriders, a street barricade, the famous Olumo rock in Abeokuta, the dictator's militia singing and drinking, Oba Danlola's large retinue, and a masquerade of the Yoruba Gelede. It adds scenes of Daodu and Segi visiting a shrine at the palace of the Alafin of Oyo, and of Kongi enacting a last supper with his twelve advisors.

The production of Kongi's Harvest suffered from its low budget, reported at a pitiful $300,000. The photography is amateurish, the editing poor, the sound-track bad. The stage experience of the actors in Kongi's Harvest turned out to be a handicap for most. Soyinka's script, while quite inspired in places, remained too beholden to the rich dialogue of his play. Endless cross-cutting and the absence of sustained dramatic sequences make the film appear disjointed. As for Ossie Davis, he had no formal training and little experience as a director. In 1969, he had been offered a role in Cotton Comes to Harlem and had wound up directing it. At that time he had a $1.2 million budget, but now he was operating with a much lower budget, in a foreign environment, and a very difficult one at that. In short, the film does not do justice to the magnificent play. Soyinka has gone so far as to disown the film altogether, even though he had written the script and acted, in a fine display of self irony, the role of Kongi. We are left to speculate about his reasons. He may have wanted to dissociate himself from the failed enterprise. He clearly was concerned about the political implications of the play. Probably most importantly, the film's ending drastically departed from Soyinka's script.

When the play was first performed in Nigeria in 1965 there was no doubt that Kongi stood for Kwame Nkrumah, the president of Ghana, whose regime had degenerated over the years and exhibited the very traits castigated by Soyinka. But when Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966 to popular acclaim, Soyinka, like many intellectuals, refused to join the anti-Nkrumah crowd that gathered once he was overthrown. Nkrumah had been—and Soyinka now argued should continue to work as—the foremost leader for African emancipation, socialism, and unification.

The ending of the film diverges altogether from both Soyinka's play and his film script. The tyrannicide succeeds, but in the final scene Dr. Gbenge, the leader of the opposition, is seen taking on the dictator's role, repeating the very same megalomanic slogans: "The will of the State is supreme, destiny has entrusted in our hands the will of the State, the will of the State is supreme." The film thus presents a stunning reversal. This makes for a dramatic ending, and it emphasizes the point that power corrupts-a recurrent theme in Soyinka's work. However, the eclipse of the process of moral renewal that might be expected to come with a new revolutionary regime seems all too cynical. Indeed, the author has cautioned us against such a simplistic approach. He has Segi observe that, at some point in the past, "Kongi was a great man." Likewise we should expect Dr. Gbenge to have a time of greatness before his regime deteriorates.

The change in the ending of Kongi's Harvest would appear not to have been acceptable to Soyinka. He has emphasized that the film does not correspond to his script, and the film, contrary to the U.S. distributor's blurb, does not credit the script to Soyinka, or anybody else for that matter. We may surmise that the film's cynical, circular view of history, or perhaps just African history, was meant to appeal to the intended U.S. audience. It is subject to charges of conservatism and racism. Ossie Davis is a most unlikely target for such charges. Soyinka has commented, with respect to anglophone African cinema, on producers' subservience to financial sponsors and the potential U.S. audience and on their dominant position vis-Ă -vis editors, and he has complained that Kongi's Harvest had been "badly butchered" by the overseas (i.e. U.S.) partners of Calpenny Productions. Presumably that's where the playwright, script writer, and lead actor puts the blame. It would appear that the U.S. sponsors short-changed the production of a major play by the preeminent African playwright with insufficient financing and insisted on subverting the authorial intent.

—Josef Gugler

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