THE GRASS IS SINGING
Sweden, 1980, 108 minutes, Colour.
Karen Black, John Thaw, John Kani, John Moulder Brown.
Directed by Michael Raeburn
The Grass is Singing is based on a novel by award-winning writer, Doris Lessing. The film focuses on Africa as well as on women’s themes. It is an interesting exploration of racial and political questions with reference to Africa and with reference to women. The transition is from the 1950s into the 60s, the time of the emergence of independent nations in Africa into the subsequent decades of the 70s and 80s.
The film was made in Zambia, standing in for the unnamed African country of the film. The film captures the atmosphere of the landscapes, beauty and weather of Africa as well as the towns and the farms. It also focuses on the relationships between black and white in southern Africa, the colonial period, the insurgency against colonial powers, the transitions.
The film stars Karen Black in quite a serious role. Opposite her is John Thaw, best known afterwards for his television series, especially Cavanagh QC and his thirty-plus films as Inspector Morse.
Dick Turner, as played by John Thaw, is a good and simple man, not aware of the ramifications of the situation as well as the impact of his city wife coming to live in a foreign country and on a farm. John Kani is Moses, who becomes emotionally and sexually entangled with Karen Black’s Mary Turner.
A film that is not often seen but is well worth seeing and reflecting on, especially in the hindsight of the history with Africa and the disintegration of colonial powers there during the latter part of the 21st century.
1. Audience interest in the work of Doris Lessing? Africa, women? Racial and political questions? The transition from the '50s through the '60s into '70s and '80s? An author of insight?
2. The adaptation of a personal and reflective novel for the screen? The interior world of Mary Turner? The external world of African society? Plot elements? Characters? Interactions? The international production: Zambia, Sweden, England?
3. The use of Zambian locations, the atmosphere of southern Africa? Landscapes? Beauty, weather? The towns, the farms, work? '60s and the status of whites in southern Africa? Traditions? The generations of workers and landowners? The Africans, the villagers, servants? Rights? Contribution of the musical score: the main theme, the songs, hymns?
4. The tone of the title? Its reference to Africa? The visual and aural images of the singing grass? Hopes and gloom for Africa? Ironies? As focussed in Mary Turner? In Moses?
5. The impact of the opening and Mary's death? Expectations? Attitudes of whites, blacks? The expectation of Mary as heroine? Interest in her story? The irony in watching her story, knowing what was to happen to her? The flashback core of the film?
6. 1960 and African attitudes, hopes? The history of the African nations? South Africa? Europe and Africans? Blacks and whites? The background of apartheid? Presuppositions as regards races, politics? The stances taken? Rhodesia and its history in the '60s? South Africa? How well illustrated were the views, presuppositions and stances?
7. The allegorical aspects of the main characters: Dick and the whites and their getting on with the job, their hopes, the traditions? Dick and his hopes for Africa? The contrast with Charlie Muller and his exploiting the land and the Africans? Mary and the whites from the city, shy and awkward, moving to the country, out of place, unable to adapt, bored and intense, driven mad? The contrast with Moses and African subservience, dislike, hate? Fascination, love and service, dependence? His knowing his place? His motivation for killing Mary and offering his hands for the cuffs? Dick, Mary and Moses representing the paradoxes of black-white relationships?
8. Themes of race and place, the African workers, the servants in the house, the treatment by the whites, the life in the village, traditions? The discussion about Jesus loving the good - and therefore only the whites?
9. Dick as a good man? His family in Africa, his treatment of the black Africans, the contrast with Muller? His shyness, the films and driving Mary home, his going out hunting and deciding to propose to Mary - and his misfiring? His visits to Mary, the outings, walks, meals? The proposal and her response? The marriage? His need for a wife, his fascination with Mary, his awkwardness, not trying to understand her?
10. The contrast with Mary and her awkwardness, the film screening, the visits by Dick, the hotel, seeing her at work, her dowdy dresses and hearing the comments of her friends, her determination to get married and her vigorous accepting of Dick?
11. The poor basis for the marriage: not knowing each other, needing each other and leaning on each other? The long trip to the farm, the animals? The arrival, the house? Mary and her energy in painting, curtains etc.? Her reaction to the houseboys coming into the room? The sexual encounter and the pain of intercourse? Her learning to cope? Spurning the Africans? Trying to entertain the Mullers? Her growing desperation and inability to adapt? Dick's vision of the future for her and her inability to accept it? Her desperation and going back to the city? Her inability to get her job back etc.?
12. Dick and his simplicity, work, his explanation of his vision and the grass singing, his friendship with the houseboys, hunting, the crops? His pleasure in Mary's looking after the house? The growing tensions and his inability to help Mary? His reaction to her leaving? His pleading with her to return, the discussion in the hotel, the plans for the big crop etc?
13. The change in their return, the big crop, his malaria and illness, Mary and her intensity with getting the work done, confronting the Africans, whipping Moses in the face? Their disregard of her? The build-up to the fire and the destruction of the crop?
14. Mary's growing madness: the erratic behaviour, the odd talk, wandering the house, the powder, the visit of Muller and supplying water instead of gin etc.?
15. Mary and the relationship with Moses: her spurning of him, seeing him in the village teaching the children., whipping him, his working in the house, seeing him washing, her fascination, her relying on him. smouldering passion, his dressing her and Muller watching, the humiliations, his serving her, his killing her - to save her from herself?
16. Dick and his inability to help Mary, his idealism, his trying to protect his land, the pressure to sell, the new manager, his wandering distraught at Mary's death, his world destroyed?
17. Moses representing the Africans: the village, the teaching, his work, working in the house, his reaction to being whipped, devotion, his reliance on Mary, serving her - even to killing her?
18. How well observed were the characters - as well as the screenplay's entering into their psyche? The elements of tragedy - and the tragedy of Africa?
19. Themes of human nature, race, love and hate, pride and arrogance, sanity and madness, ambition and drive, bewilderment?