KONGI’S HARVEST: How Ossie Davis Met Francis Oladele — the Father of Nigerian Cinema — and Translated the “Pure Africanity” of Wole Soyinka’s Play into American Cinematic Terms

A futile search for recorded interviews with pioneering Nigerian filmmaker and producer Francis Oladele — for all intents and purposes, the Father of Nigerian cinema — led me to the below 2002 conversation about the 1970 adaptation of KONGI’S HARVEST, between the great actor/director Ossie Davis and Professor Jerry Carlson from The City College of The City University of New York.

Some background: Davis directed KONGI’S HARVEST, which was based on the 1965 play written by Nigerian playwright, novelist, and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. Groundbreaking for its time — notably as a Pan-Africanist undertaking; and as “one of the earliest examples in African cinema of co-production, the coming together of two or more national or business entities to finance a film and create a crew for it” (Akin Adesokan, 2021) — the project originated with Oladele, who produced via his pioneering Calpenny-Nigeria Films Limited company.

Launched in 1965, five years after Nigeria’s proclamation of independence from British rule, Calpenny is considered the first indigenous film production company in Nigeria, despite the origins of its name (CALifornia-PENnsylvania-NewYork). Oladele spent some time in the U.S. beginning in the late 1950s, studying photography and working briefly for Technicolor.

The making of KONGI’S HARVEST is indeed the stuff of legend. Starring the playwright himself, Soyinka, who also adapted his original work, it was shot on location in Nigeria at the turn of the 1970s, with a Nigerian cast, and a crew of both foreigners (Swedes) and Nigerians, directed by African American actor-turned-director, Ossie Davis, who had just made his feature directorial debut with COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970). It was also while directing that early blaxploitation noir classic that Davis was introduced to Oladele.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Francis Oladele | Credit: Calpenny Films and the collection of The Centenary Project.

Scholar Akin Adesokan detailed the making and release of KONGI’S HARVEST in a 2021 piece for BookArtVille.

Below, watch the insightful 30-minute interview with Davis, during which he talked about his first meeting with Oladele, his impressions of the “very bright young man” (Davis was 15 years older), Oladele’s ambitions for Nigerian cinema (still not yet fully achieved decades later), Davis’ apprehension about taking on the project (if only because he was still relatively inexperienced as a film director at the time), directing a feature film in Nigeria, the tumultuous political backdrop (the tail-end of the Biafran War), frustrations with applying his “American” directing style while contending with the “Africanity…pure Yoruba enthusiasm” of the original work, working with Soyinka as writer and actor, and more.

It’s unfortunate that Oladele and Soyinka weren’t part of the conversation. Oladele was still alive at the time it was recorded (2002); he died in 2015. And Soyinka of course is still alive.

Still, it’s a worthwhile watch, even if only because, as I stated at the top of this item, online searches for recorded interviews with Oladele about any of his projects, have been futile. Email me if you have/find any: tambay@akoroko.com