The Bootleg Files: Ouanga

BOOTLEG FILES 793: “Ouanga” (1936 horror film starring Fredi Washington).

LAST SEEN: On Vimeo.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On cheapjack public domain labels.

No one is rushing to get it into home entertainment release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: The film has been restored, but no one is rushing to put it out on Blu-ray.

Fredi Washington earned a degree of cinematic immortality for her startling performance as Peola, the light-skinned Black woman who is repeatedly thwarted in her attempts to transcend the racial barriers of Jim Crow America by passing for White in the 1934 classic “Imitation of Life.” This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime role for Washington, both in terms of the quality of role and the exposure it afforded her – at a time when Black women in Hollywood studios were either cast as maids or nightclub singers, Washington found no offers to score a dramatic encore.

But that’s not to say she disappeared entirely. Shortly after “Imitation of Life” was release, she was given the opportunity to star in an independently produced film that dared to challenge many of the censorship restrictions imposed on racially-tinged productions. The resulting film would play under several titles – it is best known as “Ouanga” and it is one of the most peculiar yet jolting works of American independent cinema.

The onerous Production Code that went into effect in 1934 specifically forbid the depiction of interracial romance. Yet the foundation of “Ouanga” is an interracial love triangle – how the filmmakers imagined they could get this film past the censors is unclear.

“Ouanga” is set in Haiti and casts Washington as Klili, the owner of a plantation who is madly in love with Adam (Philip Brandon), a White man who has been away from the island for two years and is returning with Eve (Marie Paxton), a White woman who is going to be his bride. No matter how intense Klili begs Adam to overlook her “dowry of blood,” he refuses to consider her as a love interest. Klili is furious, observing how her white skin is just as pale as Eve’s.

Alas for Adam and Eve (yeah, you get the obvious joke in the character’s names?) Klili is also a Haitian voodoo priestess. In fact, the film opens with Washington and a group of female dancers doing a voodoo dance – although their costumes and choreography seem closer to Harlem’s Cotton Club than the Caribbean jungles.

Complicating matters for Klili is LeStrange, Adam’s Black overseer. He is in love with Klili, but she rejects him. As Klili plots a horrific voodoo-laced fate for Eve, LeStrange conspires to bring down Klili.

The most interesting element of LeStrange’s character is the fact he is played by Sheldon Leonard, a White character actor who is best known for playing gangsters in movies, radio and television. Why it was decided to give the role to Leonard and not a Black actor is unclear, especially since he overplays the role badly with broad grimacing and eyebrows that arch into obvious menace.

For contemporary viewers, “Ouanga” really pushed the limits of its day with Washington’s vain romantic pleas to Brandon and Leonard’s aggressive physicality to Washington. This might have been the first American film that depicted interracial romantic entanglements – it wouldn’t be until the late 1950s with films like “Island in the Sun” and “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” when the concept of Black and White people being in love was able to be raised, albeit gingerly.

“Ouanga” is also notable as the second film to include zombies in its plot. Another indie film, the 1933 “White Zombie” starring Bela Lugosi, was the first.

“Ouanga” is not, by any stretch, a great film. There is a subplot with Adam’s Black valet and Eve’s Black maid that traffic too heavily in tiresome stereotypes. And much of the acting is at a subpar level, particularly Paxton’s tiresome Eve.

But the real oxygen here is Washington. Her Klili can be seen as Peola’s evil twin – a harsh, vengeful, obsessed woman who cannot accept that she will never be viewed as White, and who is willing to bring down everyone and everything around her to satisfy her need for revenge. She brings a power and fury to the role that is remarkable – this might have been a crowning jewel in her career if the rest of the film matched her talent and energy.

“Ouanga” always seemed to be plagued by problems. It was supposed to be shot in Haiti, but the production crew was forced to leave the island over complaints of how it was going to portray voodooism. It was shot in Jamaica, where four few members were killed under violent circumstances – two died when a cyclone hit the island, one was killed by a barracuda and another had a fatal bout of yellow fever. When the film was finally completed, its subject matter made it impossible to find theatrical release. Director George Terwillger did a semi-remake in 1939 called “The Devil’s Daughter” with an all-Black cast headlined by Nina Mae McKinney.

“Ouanga” was on the shelf until 1941 when Paramount Pictures picked it up and dumped it into release on a states-right basis, where the Production Code censors were not always paying strict attention. The film would get a 1951 re-release from Realart. Over the years, it underwent different titles including “Drums of Voodoo” and “Love Wanga” while several minutes of footage were shorn. It was considered lost for some years before a print emerged in Canada. Last year, it received a digitally restored version was given a virtual screening by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

A few cheapo public domain labels released “Ouanga” on VHS and DVD, but the restored version is not available on any home entertainment format. The UCLA virtual screening is still online, though perhaps not forever, and fans of offbeat old flicks should take some time to explore this weird but invigorating curio.

Ouanga from UCLA Film & Television Archive on Vimeo.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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