Film: The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)
Director: Ralph Nelson
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, and Rutger Hauer
I often go searching for DVDs at my local Giant Tiger. This is not just because DVDs are so cheap there. It is actually because I have found some of the strangest, rarest, and most fascinating films there. My entire collection of Sidney Poitier Films have been purchased from Giant Tiger.
The Wilby Conspiracy is probably one of the most unexpected roles I have seen Sidney Poiter play and one of the real gems I have discovered at Giant Tiger. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, it’s something of a comedy in the British 60s style which is both farcical and cheeky in its use of sexual titilation. When I say that it is an unexpected role for Sidney Poitier, I guess what I mean to say is that for about the first hour or so of the film I was thinking-“Why is Sidney Poitier, such a distinguished actor, in this piece of fluff?” The Wilby Conspiracy is sort of a sexy South African version of “The Defiant Ones” set in South Africa. But, The Wilby Conspiracy is actually one of the first Hollywood films to speak firmly against Apartheid in South Africa and watching the film must have been something of an education for American and British viewers as it truly brings home the injustices of the apartheid regime. It is also directed by Ralph Nelson, who had previously directed Poitier inLilies of the Field (1963), a role for which Poitier won an Academy Award for Best Actor, becoming the first Black person to do so. So, by the end of the film, I understood by Sidney Poitier took the role.
In The Wilby Conspiracy, Poitier plays Shack Twala, a Black South African dissident who has been in jail on Robben Island for ten years. We first meet him in a courtroom in Cape Town where his young and attractive White South African lawyer is trying to appeal for his release based on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Miraculously, the court agrees. This is the begining of The Wilby Conspiracy.
Twala’s lawyer, Rina van Niekirk, is so excited by her victory that she invites Twala to come with her and her English boyfriend Keogh, played by a young and dashing Michael Caine, to go back to her office to drink champagne. Twala agrees, although it is apparent that for a Black South African dissident who has just been released after ten years in prison he can’t be as carefree as his young White lawyer. On their way to Rina’s office their car is stopped at a barricade and Twala is ordered out by the police because he doesn’t have a pass card.
In 1952, the Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act was enacted. This misleadingly-named law required all Africans to carry identification booklets with their names, addresses, fingerprints, and other information. Africans were frequently stopped and harassed for their passes. From 1948-1973, over ten million Africans were arrested because their passes were “not in order”. Burning pass books became a common form of protest to the apartheid regime by Black South Africans.
Although Rina tries to explain to the police that Shack doesn’t have a pass because he has just been release from prison, the police arrest Shack and put him in handcuffs. Rina insists that they do not and ends up being punched by one of the officers. Keogh comes to her defence and he and Shack end up seriously beating up the police officers. Rina knows that both Keogh and Shack are facing arrest for assaulting police officers. Their only option is to get out of Cape Town. Shack proposes that he and Keogh make their way to Johannesburg where Shack has a friend who can get them across the border to Botswana. Keogh reluctantly goes along with Shack.
Shack and Keogh’s misadventures on the way to Johannesburg are reminiscent of the film The Defient Ones which stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as two escaped prisoners who must work together in spite of their mutual prejudice to survive. But Caine and Poitier never achieve the level of cameraderie that Curtis and Poitier did, making this part of the film not as enjoyable as it could have been. Along the way, it becomes clear that Shack and Keogh are being followed by a South African Secret Police Officer named Horn. But why are they being followed? Why don’t the police just arrest them when they have the chance?
Shack and Keogh reach Johannesburg and must find Mukkerjee in the Indian district. Mukkerjee is a dentist and member of the same Black Congress that Shack is involved with. Shack gave Mukkerjee diamonds to hide. These diamonds are meant for Wilby Xaba, who is a leader of the Black Congress living in exile in Botswana and trying to collect money for weapons to lead an armed resistance to apartheid. But Mukkerjee no longer has the diamonds as he put them in a sink hole so they would not be found by the police. Mukkerjee’s assistant, Persis Ray, knows about Mukkerjee’s work with the Black Congress but doesn’t approve. She ends up killing Mukkerjee in order to get the diamonds for herself but in the end is killed by Keogh and Shack. Keogh and Shack retrieve the diamonds and get a plane ride out of South Africa on Rita’s estranged husband’s private jet. They are followed by Horn. We soon realize that the only reason that Shack was released from prison was in order to lead the South African Secret Police to Wilby Xaba’s location in Botswana so that they could arrest him. That’s The Wilby Conspiracy.
Wilby Xaba is played by Joe de Graft. It would be interesting to know how many people who saw the film in 1975 recognized him. Joe de Graft is a prominent Ghanaian playwright. He was a student and later a teacher at Ghana’s renowned Mfantsipim School. At the time of the film, he was living in Kenya and working at the University of Nairobi on a UNESCO appointment. He contributed greatly to Kenya’s theatre scene. He passed away a few years after the making of this film in 1978.
The Wilby Conspiracy is based on a novel by British Writer Peter Driscoll, known for writing thrillers set in foreign locales. According to Professor Mary-Kay Gamal Orlandi, the film version of Shack Twala’s character is more heroic than his literary counterpart. She writes:
Just how pointed Shack’s portrayal is in the film can be seen by comparing it to the novel. There Shack escapes from Robben Island through a secret police deal; he is forty years old, decrepit and scared. He and Keogh are thrown together by chance when Keogh takes pity on him; it is Keogh who arranges the flight, retrieves the diamonds, everything; Shack is killed by Horn during the retrieval of the diamonds. Rewriting this role and casting Sidney Poitier in it shows the filmmakers’ determination to present a strong, intelligent, politically educated African working for the liberation of his country.
The very fact that the film’s screenwriters had to rewrite the story in order to create a more noble Black character shows their own committment to both the anti-apartheid struggle as well as creating strong and positive roles for Black actors. Keogh is not allowed to be the White Knight Saviour in the film and it is only by the end of the film, after everything that he and Shack have experienced, that he takes a determined political stand. I appreciated this as it was more realistic. Shack Twala has no choice but to resist and fight on against all odds. Keogh is just trying to get back to his normal cushy life. The screenwriters also developped more interesting female characters than those in the original novel. As Orlani states:
The women’s roles, too, are strong ones. In the novel Rina is simply Keogh’s mistress; in the film (played by Prunella Gee) she is an idealistic lawyer, a bit naive in her assumption that the United Nations Code on Human Rights will be accepted by a South African court. (It is, but apparently this is part of the plot to get Wilby.) Her strength is physical as well as intellectual and moral: she stands up to and pays the price of a humiliating body-search. When she and the men are running through the veldt to catch the plane, she does not collapse and get carried, like so many heroines. The other woman in the film, Mukkerjee’s dental assistant Persis, tries to convince the others to divide the diamonds. She cares nothing for the struggle; she has bourgeois ambitions to get to London, “where a girl like me has a decent chance.” When the diamonds have been retrieved, she asks Mukkerjee, “You are determined to give the diamonds to those black terrorists?” Mukkerjee replies, “Those black terrorists are the only hope for South Africa. If the emerging nations of the Third World are to obliterate terrorism and racism…” “I don’t give a damn about the emerging nations!” breaks in Persis and shoots Mukkerjee in an attempt to steal the diamonds. Her character is overdrawn and melodramatic, but she is certainly more than an ornament or sex object.
Both of the female characters in the film are used for sex appeal, however their roles are quite complex and interesting. Rina is the only White South African character who we are supposed to like in the film. She is trying to fight for justice in her homeland which puts her own freedom and safety in peril. The predicament of the White South African with a conscience during apartheid was a tough one. During the 1970s more and more White South Africans became involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Those who became activists risked imprisonment and many had to go into exile. The apartheid system was built to keep each racial community away from each other. Although Whites were meant to be the benefactors of this, they were also not supposed to cross the boundaries. Rina is a rebel not only in her resistance to the apartheid regime but also in her romantic relationships. She is seeing Keogh but she is in the process of getting divorced from her abusive rich playboy husband Blane, played by a young and strapping Rutger Hauer. Rina has to use Blane’s plane in order to get Keogh and Shack out of South Africa to Wilby in Botswana. This means Blane has to pilot it. She has to use sexual favours in order to get his help; however she also blackmails him by saying that she will tell his father, who is an ardent racist, that Blane has been having sex with Black women in Mozambique. Sex and marriage between Blacks and Whites was outlawed officially in 1950 under the apartheid regime. This law also classified South Africans into three racial categories: Whites, Coloreds (mixed race peoples and Asians) and natives (Black Africans).
Interracial sex takes place between an Indian and a Black South African in the film. Shack Twala has been in prison for 10 years and it becomes apparent that he is desperate to have sex. In a strange scence, Shack forces Persis into his hiding place. It is clear he wants to have sex with her but he doesn’t communicate this to her with words. The two exchange looks until it becomes clear that Persis is game and then the two have sex. I think this could be the first time a Black man and a South Asian woman have engaged in sex on film…making Mira Nair’s steamy Mississipi Masala, starring Denzel Washington, the second time. Sex between Indians and Blacks was also forbidden under apartheid law, and generally the two communities did not socially mix apart from business transactions. Even in terms of resistance to apartheid, South Asians and Black South African relations were strained. Persis’ character, played by the gorgeous 1965 Miss India Universe Persis Khambatta who is best known for her role as Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, is the most enigmatic in the film. She seems to have nothing but contempt for Blacks and yet she has sex with one. She expresses that she feels trapped in the Indian district of Johannesburg. With Persis’ character, one can see that although the South Asian communities of South Africa were definitely at an advantage in comparison to Black South Africans, they were also ghettoized and trapped. Persis sees her way out by betraying Mukkerjee and stealing the diamonds as opposed to working in solidarity with Black South Africans like Shack. Like Rina, she is rebelling against the conformity of the society she lives in, but only for her own benefit. The dilemma of which side to support plagued both South Asian and Coloured politics throughout the apartheid regime, and was particularly frustration for Indian South African activists like Fatima Meer, who wrote the first authorised biography of Nelson Mandela.
The supreme villain of the film, Horn, is also not a conventional bad guy. He is intelligent and seems to have real conviction about what he is doing. He is comparable to the character Nic Vos that Tim Robbins plays in the filmCatch a Fire. Nic Vos is meant to be an amalgam of several real-life South African secret police officers. Both express a deep concern that the activists of the anti-apartheid movement are communists and being supported by communist countries (which was actually the case-The film Catch a Fire was written by Shawn Slovo, who is the daughter of noted anti-apartheid activists Ruth First and Joe Slovo, who were leaders of the South African Communist Party). Considering that this is the time of the Cold War, these concerns seem quite understandable. However, unlike Vos, Horn is also a racist and deeply against racial mixing. Again, when one understands how deep-seated this thinking was and is still among Afrikaners, to the point where many believe that to be true Christians they must remain racially pure, one sees that racist ideologies are not simply a matter of ignorance or stupidity, as we too often try to dismiss them today. The determination and intelligence of Horn’s character is what makes him so frightening and what makes Michael Caine’s actions at the end of the film seem almost unavoidable. As Orlani writes:
The character of Horn is crucial to the film’s success, not only because it is superbly acted by Nicol Williamson but because it avoids easy judgments of him as just a baddie. Historical and ideological reasons, not individual moral ones, are suggested for his positions and behavior. He is an Afrikaner, probably a farmer’s son. His racism is not a sign or a result of his being evil. It is an article of belief and his actions proceed naturally from it. When (in disguise) he approaches Keogh on the road to Johannesburg, Keogh pretends to be a commercial traveler. “Ladies’ underwear?” says Horn. “I’d hate for your kaffir to handle the merchandise.” When Horn comes to threaten Keogh and Rina, he finds them taking a bath together, “I’m surprised your friend Shack’s not in the bath with you — he’s shared your plates and sheets, hasn’t he?” He says to Keogh with genuine puzzlement, “It hurts me to see an intelligent educated white man so against his own people.” He regards antagonism between the races, as the natural state: to Mukkerjee, “Stick to what you Indians know best — cheating the blacks.
The only character that I would probably want to take the screenwriters to task on is that of Mukkerjee. He seems to be written as a stereotypical Indian, who is rather nervous, feeble, and mousy. He is Shack’s main ally yet there seems to be no cameraderie between them. More should have been invested in trying to demonstrate why Shack would trust Mukkerjee with the diamonds. As it is portrayed in the film Shack doesn’t seem to like Mukkerjee and Mukkerjee seems afraid of Shack. I would have preferred to see Mukkerjee as a stronger and cleverer character who has a genuinely strong connection with Shack based on common values and convictions. Orlani writes about Mukherjee as follows:
Mukkerjee, by contrast, is a rather comic character. Short, middle-aged, nervously smiling, he is terrified when Horn invades his office to search for Shack, naive in his idealism and no match for Persis’ determination. On the other hand, his depiction makes the important point that a revolution is not made up exclusively of handsome heroes. When Keogh finds out who Shack’s contact in Johannesburg is, he says incredulously, “A politically committed Indian dentist?” setting Shack up for another good answer: “We have all colors, even yours.”
That said, the film is definitely promoting a message of solidarity between differing racial and class groups. Collective efforts are the most succesful in the film as opposed to individual efforts. As Orlandi writes:
The film clearly promotes unity, not separatism, as the way of change for South Africa. The characters in the film can be seen as representative of their various classes and races — blacks, Indians, whites, working-class, lower-middle class, and bourgeoisie — working together. More important, there are several scenes in which the individual stars are upstaged by group efforts. When Shack and Keogh stop in the village, men and women push over a hut to hide the car, children rub out the tire tracks with their feet. As the two fugitives eat and recuperate, they are surrounded by smiling faces while music plays in the background.
The most dramatic scene depicting the power of the people is when Horn’s helicopter is brought down by several of the villagers Wilby has been working with. They then tear the machine apart. The most striking point the film makes is that violent resistance to apartheid is necessary. At the end, Horn says that he won’t stop hunting down the likes of Shack and Wilby. Keogh says that he knows this and then proceeds to shoot Horn dead. Keogh has gone from being a disinterested and disengaged English visitor to a violent militant. It is important to remember that Nelson Mandela, now one of the world’s most beloved political figures, was the head of the African National Congress’s military wing and was considered a terrorist by the apartheid regime. One man’s terrorist is often another man’s freedom fighter. However, this opens up many questions about the ethical use of violence in contexts of resistance and revolution. These are of course questions that a film like The Wilby Conspiracy doesn’t have the capacity to answer.
The Wilby Conspiracy was filmed in Kenya. Michael Caine wrote about the experience in his autobiography. He was surprised that no one recognized him as a celebrity; however everyone recognized Sidney Poitier. Poitier got the best tables in restaurants and was even invited to meet the then President of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta. The film could not have been filmed in South Africa for obvious reasons. Sidney Poitier, along with other American entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Arthur Miller, and Nina Simone signed the We Say No To Apartheid Pledge in 1965. Poitier was well aware about the apartheid regime as it had effected the distribution of his films in South Africa. Several of his films were outright banned, for other films Poitier was edited out of interracial scences. As America was trying to integrate, South Africa was enforcing segration. The casting of Poitier in The Wilby Conspiracy must have brought home to American audiences the similarity between the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle for integration and civil rights in the United States.
The Wilby Conspiracy is a fun ride with a political conscience. I recommend that you check it out.
The Wilby Conspiracy: Action for the sake of politics by Mary-Kay Gamel Orlandi (film review available online)
The Wilby Conspirarcy New York Times Film Review available online
Introduction to Apartheid: Lesson Plan for Middle Schools available online