RACIAL problems in Africa are capturing the attention of more and more filmmakers. The current wave of movies on this subject began with ``Cry Freedom,'' the story of South African martyr Steve Biko, directed by British filmmaker Richard Attenborough. A more recent example is ``A World Apart,'' directed by English filmmaker Chris Menges from a screenplay by Shawn Slovo, who grew up in South Africa.
Now two more films on African racial problems have arrived. One, called ``Saturday Night at the Palace,'' deals with a violent confrontation between two whites and a black at a Johannesburg fast-food restaurant. The film, based on a long-running stage play, was directed by South African filmmaker Robert Davies.
Not every film about Africa deals with South Africa, however. Another recent movie takes place in Kenya during the early 1950s. It's called ``The Kitchen Toto,'' and it's a gripping drama by any standard, even apart from its compelling subject matter.
The hero of ``The Kitchen Toto'' is just that - a toto, or low-level servant in the kitchen of a well-to-do white family. His name is Mwangi; he's only nine or 10 years old; and he doesn't particularly want to be a toto or any other kind of servant. But the early '50s are a time of growing racial tension in Kenya, and people can't always live their lives the way they'd like to.
Mwangi's family belongs to the Kikuyu tribe - the largest and most powerful tribe in Kenya, and one that's increasingly impatient with British rule. Mwangi's father, a Christian preacher, often speaks against the growing Kikuyu movement to oppose the British violently, and one night he's violently murdered by his enemies. Mwangi's mother has no choice but to send her little boy to earn some money - which is how he finds himself living in the white police chief's home and working as toto in his kitchen.
Mwangi works hard at his job, and becomes friendly with the police chief's son, a spoiled 11-year-old. But trouble develops when Kikuyu revolutionaries try to recruit the police chief's servants to their movement. Mwangi is now caught between two loyalties - to his people and their cause, and to the family that's taken him in and given him a home. The situation quickly grows more tense, as black radicals confront the white authorities more and more openly. The end of the story is tragic for Mwangi - and for his country, which is sliding into a full-fledged revolution that will kill numerous whites and thousands of Kikuyus.
The making of ``The Kitchen Toto'' was dramatic in its own right. The movie was written and directed by Harry Hook, a filmmaker born and raised in Kenya. He got the idea for the story by talking to people who worked for his parents and had real-life problems of double loyalty - to the Europeans they worked for, and to their own black African people. Hook decided to make a film on this subject, and realized it could take place in any number of countries where divided loyalty has existed - such as Vietnam, or Germany during World War II, or the United States during the Civil War.
He finally chose Kenya because he knew the situation there firsthand. Then he spent years raising money to make the film entirely in African settings. It was finally completed with help from Cannon Films, a Hollywood-based production company that recently started a program to support first-time filmmakers. ``The Kitchen Toto'' is the first movie to emerge from this program - and with its forceful screenplay, performances, and visual impact, it's a strong beginning in every way.
``Saturday Night at the Palace'' has a very different history. It's based on a play that was seen by more than 300,000 people - black and white - during a controversial run in South Africa. It was written by Paul Slaboletszy, who also co-wrote the movie and plays one of the leading roles: an Afrikaner with a nasty personality.
Even his friends don't like this character very much, and on the day this story takes place, he's feeling even more left out and belligerent than usual. With one of his sleazy companions, he pulls into a roadside restaurant one evening. The place is closed, and the black busboy who's in charge won't serve him anything.
The white men don't like being refused, especially by a black man whose boss (they think) has given him far too much authority. The confrontation becomes more and more menacing as the evening proceeds, and the whites do everything they can to demean and belittle their black adversary.
You can tell ``Saturday Night at the Palace'' is based on a stage play, since the most engaging part of the story takes place in one setting during one brief period of time. This is less effective in a movie than it would be in a play; at times the action seems forced and unbelievable.
What's all too believable, though, are the tensions between the white and black characters, and the way these tensions lead to violence. ``Saturday Night at the Palace'' has a stern warning to offer about the results of racial hostility. It's a film that should be widely seen, and widely heeded.