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How Dorothy Dandridge Aided in the Validity and Transformation of Tamango (1958)

February 19, 2016

TamangoFor part 1 of this ongoing series, begin here.

By the end of the 1950s Dorothy Dandridge’s career fell into a stalled slump. Her private life received copious amounts of sensationalism as she developed a dependency on prescription drugs and alcohol. To deflect her personal problems and return to work, Dandridge broke her hiatus in 1957 starring in her last three major motion pictures. The most notable of them all, and arguably her career, is the most forward-thinking, controversial film of the decade, Tamango. Though just a Hollywood actress, Dandridge used her super stardom to transform Tamango from what she initially called a “shipboard sex drama, tawdry, and exploitive” into a powerful tale ahead of the times in an extraordinary way (Cowans 323).

A Franco/Italian collaboration, Tamango is a bold adaptation of the 1829 French novella of the same by Prosper Merimee which chronicles a slave revolt on a Dutch ship. Dandridge takes on the part of Aiché, a mixed-race slave on the ship and concubine to her master, the ship’s captain. Tamango unfolds through the eyes of Aiché and the ship’s newest onset Tamango, a lion hunter from Africa who is determined not to arrive on land in chains as a slave. Dandridge plays up her physical beauty, but brings a strength and griminess to her character that isn’t seen from her previous roles in Hollywood. Aiché begrudgingly knows her place among the whites on board, and yet she also feels a strong pull to her race and fellow slaves, a connection that is deepened with the arrival of Tamango.

Tamango’s director and primary screenplay writer, John Berry, had been an established Hollywood director by the late 1940s; that is until the bullying boogeyman of Hollywood, the HUAC, stripped him of his merit after director Edward Dmytryk named Berry, among others in Hollywood, as a communist to clear his own name. This hindered Berry’s career and sent him into exile in France. Despite Berry’s once successful status as a Hollywood director, Dandridge had no qualms with implementing a direct say in much of the film’s development. She took on a role similar to that of a producer by making drastic changes to the script giving integrity to the character she was to portray. Dandridge helped transform Tamango from an atypical exploitation film into a piece of subversive art with a powerful tale to deliver.


Merimee’s original story stifled the character of Aiché into a box where her husband Tamango drunkenly trades her to the ship’s captain out of anger. Aiché’s role is nothing more than a catalyst for Tamango’s motives to get her back therefore advancing the plot of the story. Berry’s script virtually placated Dandridge into this role with intentions of using her physique to steam up scenes of the film by creating a love triangle of sorts between Tamango, Aiché, and her white slave master. Dandridge, unsatisfied with this notion of her character, pushed Berry and the film’s other writers to make her role more confrontational in which they obliged (Cowans 323).

Tamango’s costume design also caused tension between Dandridge and the creators behind the film. Berry’s son, Denis, recalls how his father’s issues on set were largely due to his ignorance of the European culture and the collaborations within it. Berry hired fashion designer Madame Carbuccina, who in turn used costumes designed by contemporary Parisian designers. The film’s assistant director, Jaques Nahum, recalls the outfit that Dandridge originally was meant to wear being so skimpy that it looked like something a Madi Gras dancer would wear. Dandridge apparently took one look at them and refused to do the film (Prime). Dandridge only agreed to continue with the project when the wardrobe matched her liking resulting in the full-bodied dress and headscarf that she wears throughout the film.


Despite the contention between Dandridge and Berry, their compromises make for an engaging powerful film ripe with tenacity and intrigue. Berry’s screenplay highlights the hypocrisy of the mentality that allowed slavery to exist, as the Captain proudly intends to treat his slaves well and respectfully, such as in one scene when he scolds the ship’s cook for the unappetizing food that his slaves have to eat. Nevertheless, the Captain still utilizes the institution of slavery to keep himself at an advantage and the men and woman on his boat are subjected to his rule. The script allows Dandridge to deliver more sustenance to her role than the stereotypical surface dramas she had participated in Hollywood.

Here, Dandridge’s character is more complex and evolves changing mindsets and hearts as the film continues. Aiché is given the freedom to deliver a powerhouse speech in which she channels her rage for being branded and beaten by white masters to the Captain who is ignorantly shocked at her disdain. He has convinced himself that he is a just and “good” master, to which Aiché reminds him why he’s scum. Frequently throughout the film, Aiché’s hair is long, blowing in the wind. She combats this by wearing a headscarf but the Captain always makes a point to displeasingly take it off her. She later expresses to him how her hair down and flowing is merely something for his pleasure, a way to see her as a white.

It almost seems natural that a film of this stature so ahead of its time would get banned upon release. Dandridge’s popularity couldn’t excuse the film’s powerful anti-white supremacy stance in a time where much of the world was shrouded in the mindset that Blacks among other minorities were somehow less than. Berry’s script is rich with humanity and raw honesty. Tamango touches on the greed and selfishness of humans as the slave trades are shown to be possible with the cooperation of an African chief who trades his people for guns and rum. Berry’s collaborative screenplay provides backstories for the slaves, character development to side players, and a voice with which the marginalized can express their disdain for the life they have been forced to enter. Dandridge’s refusal to participate in a film in which the original script did not have these elements is a telling aspect.

But, it wasn’t enough for audiences to welcome the story with open arms. Many American critics discredited the film for its focus on slavery and its time period. French audiences fared better, though not by much, as critics were mostly negative in their reviews of the film as well (Cowans, 325). Tamango’s production took place in Nice, outside of French cinema jurisdiction, and yet the film still got banned in colonized parts of France for fear that it would “rile up the natives.” Most critics couldn’t get past the film’s overt shameless depiction of an interracial affair between Aiché and the ship’s Captain. In America, Tamango got trimmed and pruned to a limited release but completely diverted a release in the South.


The ugly reality of racism and slavery was not something that audiences and producers of the era were ready to confront. Tamango shatters all of this by doing everything they weren’t supposed to do and the result is a film with real emotion and a gut-wrenching story. Tamango marks the first time the subject of slavery was shown in gruesome, harrowing detail and it would take another 20 years before the subject received further exploration in Alex Haley’s television adaptation of “Roots.” It would then take another 20 years after that before Hollywood would make Amistad expanding on Tamango’s broad imagery of a slave revolt and expounding on the conviction of a people forced into a degrading lifestyle.


Additional Citations:

Cowans,  Jon. Empire Films and the Crisis of Colonialism, 1946–1959. Maryland: John Hopkins University Press. 2015.

Lawrence, Novotny. Documenting the Black Experience: Essays on African American History, Culture, and Identity in Nonficition Films. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc. 2014.

Prime, Rebecca. Cinematic Homecomings: Exile and Return in Transnational Cinema. Bloomsbury Academic. 2014

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