“It is more important to buy a sjambok than a plough” was the advice the prosperous Charlie Muller gave to the young farmer Dick Turner. The sjambok, a long whip made from raw hippo hide, traditionally used to control a span of oxen and, in the days of slavery in South Africa, sometimes to whip a man to death, symbolises the inhumanity underlying British colonial rule in Southern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) in the mid-twentieth century. Director Michael Raeburn’s sensitive film adaptation of The Grass is Singing (1950) by Doris Lessing (1919-2013), who died last year at the age of ninety-four, was critically acclaimed when it was released in 1981. (It was released in the United States in 1984 with the title Killing Heat).
Internationally famous for her wide and varied oeuvre, Nobel Laureate in Literature Doris Lessing’s early work is strongly autobiographical. The Grass is Singing is her first novel. Lessing chose the title from the fifth section of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem The Waste Land: which is entitled, “What the thunder said”:
- If there were rock
- And also water
- And water
- A spring
- A pool among the rock
- If there were the sound of water only
- Not the cicada
- And dry grass singing…
Water in Africa is always a sign of hope, of fertility. Here the dry grass and the singing cicada hint at the weaknesses in the colonial system, which Raeburn’s film explores with restrained subtlety.
Lessing’s novel reflects much of the experiences of her childhood growing up on an isolated farm in Mashonaland, in the former Rhodesia, where her English parents had settled after her father was wounded during World War I. From the outset Lessing’s fiction is critical of the society in which she grew up, the arid, self-satisfied colonial culture which, even as a young woman, she found suffocating. She was deeply questioning too of the dispossession of Africans. Rhodesia had been named after Cecil Rhodes, a mining magnate and politician who, in 1889 had formed the British South Africa Company and had fought and wheedled his way into the lands of the Mashona and the Matabele.Lessing’s novel was understandably attractive to the film director and writer Michael Raeburn who has built his career analysing the social and economic upheavals of post-colonial Africa, particularly of Zimbabwe where he has not always been welcomed. Raeburn shot The Grass is Singing in Zambia, in the National Park where the immense, open landscape, across which the eye is immediately drawn towards the distant mountains, is typical of much of southern Africa. This is not the Hollywood image of the luxury safari, but the Rhodesia of the period shortly after the Second World War when some white farmers were making fortunes in maize and tobacco amid the murmurings against colonial rule blown by winds of change that, at the time, were almost as silent as the surrounding bush.
In the opening frames of the film, the camera focuses on what are obviously African artefacts swinging from a tree in the wind, among them the fetish of a white doll pierced by an assegai (spear). This is a dark film in every sense, a film in which the characters do not speak a great deal and the viewer is always aware of the presence of Africa in the changing seasons: the rain, the wind, and the shifting clouds which form a backdrop to the group of black men at work on the farm. Silence and, at times, the evocative music of Lasse Danberg, Björn Isfällt and Themba Tana, play an important part in creating mood and tension. Raeburn has taken much of what sparse dialogue there is straight from Lessing’s novel. The language of white people in the period, casual remarks about the laziness of kaffirs, comments on the untrustworthiness of the “educated native” and the general stupidity of “blacks” will shock contemporary audiences.
The depressing brick farmhouse where the central drama unfolds is in strong contrast to the brief scenes of family life in the adjoining compound, where the labourers and their families live. The visual impact of this film is strong, from the vivid sequence showing workers fighting a veld fire, a common hazard in Africa, which threatens the crops and the cattle, to the casual shots of buck drifting silently through the bush, oblivious of what might seem to them to be the lunatic activities of humans.
The story line is very simple. Mary Turner (Karen Black), a white farmer’s wife, has been murdered. Nobody seems to know any details and the film moves in flashback to an account of Mary’s life as a vivacious but sexually cold secretary working in a nearby town. One day she overhears friends gossiping about her. They remark that she has reached her thirties and shows no sign of marrying because, someone adds, she “is not like that”. These comments throw Mary into a state of confused introspection so rapidly that the viewer finds her reactions scarcely credible. Mary marries a diffident young farmer, Dick Turner (John Thaw) who has been struggling for some years to turn a profit from his thousand acres of land mortgaged to the government. Dick is honest with Mary. He explains his relative poverty and the primitive conditions in which he lives. However the reality is a shock to his wife who is used to the normal comforts of town life. She finds that his three-roomed house with its corrugated iron roof has no ceilings, so that it turns into an oven in the summer. The curtains are made of grain sacks and there is no mosquito netting on the windows. From her small savings she buys material, makes curtains, and does her best to improve her home. Later she whitewashes the walls herself, an activity almost unthinkable for a white Rhodesian woman.
Mary is afraid of Africans. She thinks of them as savages who stink like animals. From the outset, Mary’s behaviour to one house servant after another is cold, at times even cruel and abusive. She stubbornly refuses to listen to Dick’s attempts to broaden her understanding and change her behaviour. One by one, she either dismisses the men or they ask to leave. Her attitude does not begin to change until her husband, in despair at the constant rows, introduces his best worker, Moses (John Kani) into the household, to be trained as a domestic servant.
John Kani is a celebrated South African actor, playwright and dramatist who has won many awards and who, from his collaboration with Athol Fugard in Sizwe Banzi is Dead (1972) and The Island (1973) onwards, did much for protest theatre during the apartheid years. His performance as Moses is moving and thought-provoking.
Karen Black’s notable career in films from her early success in Easy Rider (1969) and during the succeeding decade when she became almost a cult figure, particularly for her representation of women on the edge of sanity, made her an excellent choice for this role. The entire drama is dependent upon the slow degeneration of this obstinate woman whose irrational anger at black people is part of her cultural inheritance rather than innate viciousness. Mary is driven by fear; a fear fanned by the white colonizer’s horror of miscegenation, a horror expressed by Charlie when he notices the signs of intimacy between Moses and Mary in the scene where he stays for supper.
However, Mary’s first encounter with Moses had been far more amicable. When Dick collapses with a severe bout of malaria, Mary is forced to go down to the lands (fields) to supervise the workers who have taken the opportunity to enjoy some well-earned rest. At first Mary cannot bear the sight of the men whom she treats with the utmost contempt, scarcely able to recognize them as human beings with normal human needs. Karen Black creates a woman in whom fear of Africans paradoxically begins to feed a sense of power in her new role as overseer. Moses, who is a powerfully built man, catches Mary’s attention for the first time when he stops working and helps himself to a mug of water. When she orders him back to work, Moses replies casually that he needs a drink. Mary finds his attitude so provocative that, almost without realizing what she is doing, she lifts the sjambok she carries and slashes him across the face. For a moment Mary fears the man will attack her but, surprisingly, he restrains himself and returns to work. Significantly, Mary does not tell Dick about this incident, an incident which reverberates even more powerfully in the novel than it does in the film where the sjambok looks more like a thin stick than the destructive weapon it is.
Karen Black’s depiction of Mary’s gradual metamorphosis into a deranged woman who meets a tragic end is thoroughly convincing. Apathy creeps over her. She scatters grain among the hens, apparently unaware that they are dying. It becomes difficult to sympathize with this woman because the dignified bearing and restrained responses of John Kani’s Moses to Mary’s vindictive outbursts demand respect. Black’s Mary, though convincing in her sad decline, is not perhaps as easily understandable as the Mary of the novel where the reader is given a detailed account of her unhappy childhood, an account which does much to explain, for instance, her inability to respond sexually to her husband, a reluctance which is, however, made clear in the film.
The core of the plot is the total reversal of power acted out between the African house servant and the white woman. It is the breakdown of the mistress/servant relationship with its manifold invisible boundaries and the slow development of a human interchange between Moses and Mary. When Dick collapses with another bout of malaria, Moses insists on nursing him so that the ill and exhausted Mary gets some sleep. When Mary stops ordering meals, Moses brings food on a tray and persuades her to eat. His attitude to the sick woman is almost paternal; he even tucks her up at night. Mary drifts zombie-like through the house shadowing Moses on whom she becomes totally dependent. He even combs her tangled hair and helps her to dress.
In the meantime Dick, forced by circumstances to sell his farm to Muller in an arrangement which allows him to stay on as farm manager, is heading for a total breakdown. John Thaw’s creation of Dick as a thoroughly decent, somewhat idealistic man lacking the ruthlessness, or the strength, to manage either his personal life or his land, is a foretaste of Thaw’s later successful career on stage and screen, perhaps most memorably as Inspector Morse in the British television series which established him as a National Treasure.
Eventually, Tony Marston (John Moulder Brown), a young Englishman new to the Colony, arrives to manage the farm so that Dick, now recovered, can take his sick wife on holiday. Unnerved by glimpses of intimacy between Mary and her house servant, Tony confronts the couple. The distraught Mary, who has been clinging to Moses, suddenly flings herself into the arms of the young white man, almost a complete stranger to her. Tony dismisses Moses on the spot. Later on, Moses stabs Mary, who practically offers herself up to his knife, on the veranda.
Significantly, Raeburn then departs from Lessing’s text, inserting a brief exchange between Moses and a black woman, presumably his wife, in their own language, which is not subtitled. We then see Moses engaged in a fleeting encounter with a witchdoctor, also not subtitled. The film then shows the tree with its ominous speared white doll fetish. The final shot is of the impassive face of the handcuffed Moses walking calmly behind Muller’s farm truck into which Mary’s body has been loaded.
Is this a simple revenge tragedy, payback for his slashed face and the numerous indignities he has suffered? I think not. Raeburn’s fetishes swinging from a tree, which frame the entire film, might be taken to imply that Africa will always be primitive and dangerous. Such an interpretation would make nonsense of Lessing’s novel, and of Raeburn’s film. Instead, this deliberate flashback to these ominous African artefacts could be thought to emphasize the latent power of Africa and its people, despite colonial subjugation. Moses kills as a matter of pride because the white woman has refused in the end to acknowledge him as a fellow human being.