Tamango (1958)

Tamango (1958)

“We can be free if we stand together.”

The captain (Curt Jurgens) of a Dutch slave ship headed to Cuba attempts to secure the loyalty of his mulatto mistress (Dorothy Dandridge) while tamping down a rebellion started by a determined slave named Tamango (Alex Cressan).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • At Sea
  • Curt Jurgens Films
  • Dorothy Dandridge Films
  • French Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Rebellion
  • Race Relations and Racism
  • Slavery

Blacklisted American director John Berry — who worked with John Garfield in his final film, He Ran All the Way (1951) — helmed this powerful and distinctive drama of rebellion on a slave ship. While the ship is Dutch and the language spoken French, it is easy enough to view this as a rare (singular?) attempt to portray the evils of American’s chattel slavery history in a way simply not covered by any others at the time. We see the wheels of the slave trade at each early stage, beginning with a trade of bodies for guns:

… and moving swiftly into the specifics of the conditions endured by the able-bodied men and women who were crammed into a ship, shackled while being fed and “exercised” just enough to keep them healthy and alive. Within 12 minutes, we see the title protagonist (real-life medical student Cressan in his only acting role) fomenting rebellion:

… and veteran slave trader Jurgens ready to respond to each and every attempt with seasoned aplomb. Jurgens’ Achilles’ heel is beautiful Aiché (Dandridge), who evolves over the course of the film from a mistress who warily accepts her role, to someone who recognizes that her freedom can never be won under the thumb of white slavers. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, she tells Jurgens how she really feels about him after he supposedly writes a statement freeing her:

Refreshingly, the storyline — based on a short story by Prosper Mérimée — never goes in expected directions, always keeping the humanity of the shackled slaves at the forefront. This rarely-seen film remains well worth a look, both as a powerful drama and for its historical relevance (including inevitable controversy).

Note: Film fanatics will likely recognize Jean Servais — star of Rififi (1955) — as the ship’s doctor, charged with keeping the slaves reasonably healthy.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Alex Cressan as Tamango
  • Dorothy Dandridge as Aiche
  • Curt Jurgens as Captain Reinker
  • A distressingly realistic depiction of life onboard a slave ship

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance and as an overall powerful drama.


  • Good Show
  • Historically Relevant


One thought on “Tamango (1958)

  1. Agreed; must-see for its significance in cinema history, and for Dandridge’s performance. As posted (3/30/22) in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “I own you. … Don’t I?”

    ‘Tamango’ (1958): At the beginning of the film, we’re told that “France was one of the first nations to abolish slavery.” That was 1794. Nevertheless, “[d]espite the treaties of 1815 again condemning slavery, outlaw slave-traders continued to violate international laws.” That is the story of ‘Tamango’, set in 1820.

    The film was controversial on release. Wikipedia tells us that France banned it in its West African colonies “for fear it would cause dissent among the natives.” It opened in NYC in 1959 but wasn’t seen nationwide until 1962. This was because it went against the still-existing Hays Code in its depiction of miscegenation.

    In Washington DC, the film played for over a year since it was popular with black audiences. It is one of the few films of note that starred Dorothy Dandridge. In 1954, she had the lead in Otto Preminger’s ‘Carmen Jones’ and, following ‘Tamango’, she teamed up again with Preminger for (and was romantically involved with him around the time of) ‘Porgy and Bess’. In 1965, at age 42, she took her own life with pills. (Some say it was accidental.)

    ‘Tamango’ is a compact, effective film, well-directed by blacklisted director John Berry. And Dandridge is terrific in it.

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