Earl Cameron’s death in July 2020, a mere month shy of his 103rd birthday, was a significant loss for British film, and a particularly poignant one in a period in which issues of diversity and inclusion, in cinema and beyond, are belatedly being highlighted. Cameron’s career was, indeed, truly exceptional. From his first major role in Basil Dearden’s terrific Pool of London (1951), the Bermuda-born actor was among the first Black stars in the British film industry, and went on to have a lengthy career encompassing stage, cinema and TV.
To accompany the season of Cameron’s work at BFI Southbank this August, here’s a rundown of 10 significant screen appearances by the pioneering performer, who is to be celebrated as, in the words of David Olusoga, “not just a brilliant actor but a link to a deeper history.”
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Pool of London (1951)
Director: Basil Dearden
Cameron’s first film remained his finest and also his own favourite. In Basil Dearden’s evocative Ealing ensemble drama, which follows a group of characters connected to the HMS Dunbar merchant liner as the ship docks in London over a weekend, the actor delivers a beautiful, nuanced performance as Johnny, a Jamaican sailor experiencing the pleasures and pains of the postwar capital. Amid a heist plot and numerous other entanglements, Cameron’s scenes with Susan Shaw’s ticket-seller Pat are the tender centre of the film. It’s a touching connection that’s also notable as one of the first interracial romances in British cinema – an element that, though cautiously developed, was still enough to upset American censors.
Director: Brian Desmond Hurst
Despite critical acclaim and copious fan-mail for his performance in Pool of London, Cameron would wait several years for his next major film role. This came alongside Dirk Bogarde in Brian Desmond Hurst’s Simba, a heated drama about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. The film cast Cameron as a doctor, Peter Karanja, attempting to reconcile his Kikuyu heritage with his admiration for the west. Despite the film’s dated and problematic elements (including the darkening of the actor’s skin for the role), Cameron succeeds in pulling us right into the character’s conflicts, bringing sensitivity and moral awareness to the part.
A Man from the Sun (1956)
Writer/producer: John Elliot
Throughout his career, Cameron appeared in a wide range of TV shows, from individual episodes of series including Dr Who and The Prisoner, to one-off dramas, such as Thunder on Sycamore Street (1957), which gets a rare screening in the BFI season. The year before Thunder, Cameron played community leader Joseph Brent in A Man from the Sun, a BBC docudrama that’s significant not only as a landmark portrait of West Indian migrant experience in postwar Britain but also for uniting Cameron with some of the other key Black and biracial performers of the period: Errol John, Cy Grant and Nadia Cattouse.
The Heart Within (1957)
Director: David Eady
A modest addition to the kid-and-criminal subgenre of British cinema – think Tiger Bay (1959) and Whistle Down the Wind (1961) – David Eady’s film casts Cameron as Victor, a Jamaican dockyard worker who goes into hiding following a false accusation of murder and is aided by a teenager (David Hemmings, soon to become a face of swinging London in 1966’s Blowup). More interesting than the crime element, though, is The Heart Within’s engagement with the experiences of the Windrush generation. The perspective is ultimately optimistic but the film doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the disillusionment experienced by some of the migrants. It’s a perspective poignantly communicated in Cameron’s powerful performance, as the self-reflective Victor ruefully realises that “a coloured man’s guilty until he’s proven innocent.” “I came here with big hopes,” Victor remarks, “and end up in a junkyard.”
Director: Basil Dearden
Reuniting Cameron with director Basil Dearden after Pool of London, and hastened into production following the Notting Hill riots of summer 1958, Sapphire continued Dearden and producer Michael Relph’s valuable run of ‘social problem’ pictures, this time using a murder-mystery plot as a vehicle to sharply probe contemporary attitudes to race. Cameron’s role here is relatively small, but, playing the brother of the biracial murder victim of the title, the actor makes his mark in a couple of memorable scenes. Like Dearden’s later Victim (1961), Sapphire was scripted by the undervalued Janet Green.
Flame in the Streets (1961)
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Again inspired by the 1958 riots, yet offering a considerably more progressive perspective on interracial relationships than that of, say, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (made exactly 30 years later), Roy Ward Baker’s Flame in the Streets is an underrated but essential British film of its period. Sensitive to the vexed intersections of the personal and the political, the film finds John Mills’ union leader and his wife (Brenda de Banzie, brilliant in an extremely unsympathetic role) challenged by the romance of their daughter (Sylvia Syms) with a Jamaican teacher (Johnny Sekka). As up-for-promotion employee Gabriel Gomez, who is also in a relationship with a white woman (Ann Lynn), Cameron’s role here is again small but significant. The actor also advised the director on making the domestic details of the Black characters’ lives more authentic in the film.
A Fear of Strangers (1964)
Director: Herbert Wise
Like The Heart Within, Herbert Wise’s taut and gripping TV two-hander again cast Cameron as a falsely accused man. This time he’s a saxophonist and small-time criminal who is detained by the police on suspicion of murder and is racially abused by Stanley Baker’s chief inspector.
A Fear of Strangers was written by Leon Griffiths in 1958 but banned by the Independent Television Authority for six years due to its controversial subject matter. Almost 60 years on, this searing take on police racism remains as potent as ever. It finds Cameron and Baker both at the peak of their powers.
Director: Terence Young
Cameron was considered, but ultimately passed over, for the role of Quarrel in the first James Bond film, Dr. No (1962). However, the actor was asked back to the series for Thunderball, in which he played Pinder, the Bahamian assistant of Connery’s Bond. (The actors would be reunited over 10 years later in Richard Lester’s 1979 film Cuba.) While Cameron wasn’t thrilled with his part in Thunderball – “I just drive James Bond around a Caribbean island!” he said – the distinction he brings to such a functional role makes it the franchise’s loss that it failed to find more for him to do over the years.
A Warm December (1973)
Director: Sidney Poitier
Directed by and starring Sidney Poitier, this romance – a kind of Roman Holiday-meets-Love Story in the contexts of the Cold War and African independence – focuses on the relationship between a widowed doctor and a dignitary’s niece (Esther Anderson) whom he meets while holidaying in London. Cameron is stellar in support as the girl’s ambassador uncle.
The Interpreter (2005)
Director: Sydney Pollack
Having converted to the Baha’i faith in 1963, Cameron relocated with his family to the Solomon Islands in 1979 and retired from acting. He resumed his career in the 1990s with a series of small parts, from a portrait artist in The Queen (2006) to ‘elderly bald man’ in Inception (2010), that were seldom worthy of his talents and status. Happily, recognition came his way through other means, including a CBE in 2009, an honorary doctorate from the University of Warwick in 2013, and the Screen Nation ‘Hall of Fame’ award in 2016, while in 2019 the Earl Cameron Award was established in his honour by the Bermuda Arts Council.
An exception in terms of late-career screen roles, though, was Cameron’s substantial turn in The Interpreter as Edmond Zuwanie, the Mugabe-inspired dictator whose prospective indictment is the plot pivot of Sydney Pollack’s UN-set thriller. A rare villain in the Cameron canon, the role found the actor belatedly broadening his range with this inspired, chilling performance.
The Earl Cameron season runs at BFI Southbank throughout August 2021.
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