NEW YORK — THE title character of ``Mister Johnson'' is a black African clerk, working for the British during the heyday of their colonial rule in the 1920s. He's never been to England, yet he thinks of himself as a proud English citizen, and practically worships the stodgy British imperialists who lord it over his country. It's an absurd situation - as absurd as the colonial system itself - and it can't help leading to tragedy for all concerned. The sad, ironic, sometimes wryly amusing events leading up to this tragedy are the subject of the movie.
Whenever a film deals with the relationship between whites and people of color, especially in parts of the third world where poverty and inequality are harsh everyday problems, it's tempting to examine the movie with microscopic care, looking for signs of racism or condescension. ``Mister Johnson'' would not completely pass an examination like this, since its sympathies lie not only with the oppressed blacks but with the whites who oppress them.
Although the English seem to have all the power, the film suggests that in subtle ways they're as trapped by colonialism as the natives they control - and they have the disadvantage of living thousands of miles from home, trying to impose their way of life on people who neither want it nor need it. Still, in the movie as in real life, the conquered Africans eventually emerge as the most hapless victims of the story - especially Mister Johnson himself, whose fate sums up the arrogance of imperialism.
``Mister Johnson'' is based on the last of several West African novels written by British author Joyce Cary, who's best known to moviegoers as the author of ``The Horse's Mouth,'' made into a fine Alec Guiness comedy some 33 years ago. Cary lived and worked in the region for years, and his book has a sense of gritty authenticity and freewheeling charm that screenwriter William Boyd and the other filmmakers have translated reasonably well into movie terms.
SMART acting by a fine cast also helps the proceedings. Pierce Brosnan is doggedly believable as a colonial officer who's convinced that a road he's building will magically civilize the patch of West Africa for which he's responsible. Edward Woodward is frighteningly good as an ignorant merchant who becomes Mister Johnson's benefactor and foe. The triumph of the movie, though, is Nigerian actor Maynard Eziashi playing Mister Johnson himself, in as witty and persuasive a performance as I've seen this yea r.
``Mister Johnson'' is the first American production to be filmed entirely in Nigeria.
The picture was shot by Australian director Bruce Beresford, whose past works range from atrocities like ``King David'' and ``Barry McKenzie Holds His Own'' to memorable successes like ```Breaker' Morant'' and ``Tender Mercies'' as well as ``Driving Miss Daisy,'' a popular Academy Award winner last year. Since this makes two Beresford movies in a row with black characters in the spotlight, I asked him recently if he has developed a special interest in the problems and challenges of black lif e. He said no - that he's just interested in good stories, whomever their characters may happen to be.
Although some filmmakers do explore favorite themes in movie after movie, I tend to believe Mr. Beresford when he says he chooses his projects one at a time. ``Mister Johnson'' and ``Driving Miss Daisy'' are likable and well-made pictures, but they aren't full of deep thoughts or insights. They're just good stories.
Still, good stories with sympathetic black characters aren't exactly plentiful in today's movie world, and stories that criticize imperial attitudes toward the third world are encountered even less often - despite the fact that such attitudes linger today in devious ways, leading many people in the developed world to tend to think of underdeveloped countries as somehow less than real and important. For these reasons, as well as the simple moviegoing pleasures it offers, ``Mister Johnson'' is a welcome e ffort.