Comments Off on Ashanti

Ashanti (1979) revisits many of the same themes of racism and the legacy of slavery as Richard Fleischer’s earlier film Mandingo (1975). Both films are highly sensationalist renderings of a complex social and political legacy that are steeped in the genre workings of the old time Romantic blockbuster and the contemporary grindhouse exploitation film. But while Mandingo works with a set, recognizable complex of signifiers derived from films as diverse as Gone With The Wind (1939) and Song Of The South (1946), Ashanti remains ignorant of its aesthetic proximity to the Italian cannibal film or the “mondo” movie.

Ashanti embraces the visual lexicon of the latter day Hollywood epic, drawing inspiration from films such as Lawrence Of Arabia (1962) rather than Slave Of The Cannibal God (1978) with which Ashanti has far more in common. Even in a misstep like Ashanti, Richard Fleischer’s bold, brash and ever confident directorial style is able to propel the drama along and keep the audience moderately invested in the proceedings. Few directors possessed Fleischer’s ability to elevate the most disposable, trashy narratives to A-list glory, and that is precisely what he does with Ashanti.

Today there’s absolutely no getting around the problematic aspects of Ashanti. W.H.O. doctors Michael Caine and Beverly Johnson are inoculating the residents of a small African tribal village when slaver Peter Ustinov kidnaps Johnson. Caine, distraught his wife has been forced into slavery, enlists a series of older actors from Hollywood’s golden age to help him (Rex Harrison and William Holden) before ultimately teaming-up with Kabir Bedi. It’s only after Ustinov has sold Johnson to Omar Sharif that Caine and Bedi rescue Johnson.

Rape, racial caricature, and cultural tourism are the three primary spectacles the script trades in and Fleischer renders each with the pathos and sense of Romantic adventure that made his films The Vikings (1958), Barabbas (1961), and Bandido (1956) classics. The British and American cast members play their roles with the oblivious seriousness of a fifties adventure film, reinforcing Fleischer’s aesthetic take on the material. In the midst of this whirlwind of old Hollywood jingoism and grindhouse spectacles is Kabir Bedi’s singular performance that insists on bringing a degree of authenticism to the otherwise plastic proceedings.

In Ashanti, Beverly Johnson tells Michael Caine that her ancestors belonged to the “interesting” tribe of the Ashanti, thus establishing the reason for the film’s title. However, the Ashanti people were no small tribe or even obscure. The Ashanti were an empire in Africa for over two-hundred years that occupied modern day Ghana and the surrounding territories. This faux pas speaks to the inherent failing of Ashanti as a dramatic premise. This forerunner to films like Taken (2008) has a total disregard for the historical and cultural material of its narrative milieu and no real sense of where to locate its aesthetic operations in its contemporary cinema. Ashanti will keep you watching, but it will not engage and it is sure to offend.