As a student in Britain, between 1934 and 1937, Jomo Kenyatta was usually short of cash and would jump at any opportunity to make an extra quid.
In 1935, such an opportunity presented itself when his African-American friend, Paul Robenson, a singer and political activist enticed Jomo for a role in the movie, Sanders of the River, adapted from Edgar Wallace's 1911 works.
The movie revolved around British Commissioner Sanders who ruled a West African kingdom with an iron fist. Sanders takes leave and the kingdom almost crumbles before order is restored with the help of chief Bosabo, played by Robenson.
Kenyatta was part of the 300 ‘extras’ and in a six-minute scene, he is seen standing near Bosabo though he utters no word. For his act, Kenyatta earned a guinea (old British currency) then equivalent to about five dollars.
But the movie turned into an embarrassment for Robenson and other political activists such as Kenyatta. When the film producer, Alexander Korda was editing the movie, some extra scenes that seemed to glorify colonialism were added.
During his initial appearance, Robenson is naked, save for a piece of leopard skin that covers his private parts and stoops before Sanders, addressing him as “lord and master.”
American historian Martin Duberman castigated Kenyatta for acting in a movie that ran contrary to his political ideology. Kenyatta even presented a cigarette case to Korda, adding his name and the words “With deep admiration and gratitude” to the inscription.
“It’s worth noting that Jomo Kenyatta seems to have felt no qualms about the direction the film was taking,” wrote Duberman. Embarrassed, “Kenyatta never again spoke of the film.”
After the initial screening, Robenson disowned the film as he could not reconcile the fact that he had acted in a movie whose scenes “romanticised the British Empire and colonialism,” as Stephen Bourne wrote in his book, Black in the British Frame.
Bourne described the film as a “hymn to colonialism and embarrassing to watch” as it perpetuated the notion that Africans are savages “in skins, waving spears and eating raw meat.”
Said Robenson: “The twist in the picture which was favourable to British imperialism was accomplished during the cutting of the picture after it was filmed. I had no idea that it would have such a turn. When it was shown at its premiere in London and I saw what it was, I was called to the stage and in protest refused to perform.”