Song Of Freedom (1936)
Directed by: J. Elder Wills
Written by: Claude Wallace, Dorothy Holloway, Fenn Sherie, Ingram D'Abbes, Michael Barringer
Starring: Elisabeth Welch, Esme Percy, Paul Robeson, Robert Adams
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 80 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
John Zinga is a British-born black man who works on the London docks. His one dream in life is to discover his ancestry in Africa, his interest being fuelled by a song that he sings often, be it to his wife or while he works. A song that he never learned, but is always inside of him. One day, he’s discovered singing in a pub by impressario Gabriel Donozetti who wants to make him a singing star. John is initially reluctant, but then realises that if he does this, he can eventually earn enough money to go to Africa….
You would probably never believe that Hammer made a musical, but they made various kinds of films outside of their iconic Gothic horrors, especially in their early days. After The Mystery Of The Marie Celeste the only other of the four 30’s Hammer films that survive, Song Of Freedom is of great historical interest. It stars Paul Robeson, one of the first true black stars of the cinema who resisted the usual stereotypical parts for black actors that were common for several decades, and it’s possibly the film in which he had the most creative control. It opens in very dramatic fashion with an African tribal killing and then a montage with stark images of slavery over a shot of a coin [and also loads of back projection]. This is of course before John Zinga is even born, and the next hour is a straightforward tale of a singer being ‘discovered’ and becoming a huge success, though it’s quite fast paced with much rushing through time. It’s pleasant if lacking much in the way of dramatic meat. The final section returns to Africa and at times feels like a Tarzan film without Tarzan but with plenty of the usual cliches, then climaxing in a rather ridiculous and unconvincing finale where John wins over an evil witchdoctor and his followers with song.
In fact, seen today, some aspects of the film seem overly simplistic and even uncomfortable, such as the idea of African savages in need of civilised Western guidance, though it’s possible that it’s being deliberately ambiguous about certain things and is actually more complex than it seems. It’s a shame that Mrs. Zinga is obviously played by a white actress. The lack of racist characters is odd though in the end rather refreshing, and there’s a nice un-condescending portrayal of London working class life too. The few songs are pleasant and belted out by Robeson, who has a stunning voice. This was the first film of his I’d seen [I don’t intend it to be the last] and he really was a strong actor with a powerful presence. Though perhaps in the end one of those films which is rather more interesting than it is entertaining, Song Of Freedom, not a film I would have sought out if I hadn’t been doing this Hammer project, was certainly not one I regretted seeing. It’s a real curio and very warm-hearted too.