This film is held by the BFI (ID: 13340) and Imperial War Museum (ID: CCE 200).


Development programmes in Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika illustrate that "even in the midst of war, Great Britain does not shirk her responsibilities to her colonies."

An opening sequence of maps and stock shots indicates the extent and variety of the Colonial Empire; the East African colonies are introduced as representative examples. A tribal dance hints at the "life of fear and uncertainty" replaced by British rule, a village's "squalor" the need for continued war on "ignorance, poverty and disease." "Much can be achieved by money and the initiative of the White Man:" film hints at hydro-electric schemes, modern harbours (Mombasa), roads, bridges etc and illustrates in more detail hospital expansion; tsetse fly research and control; relieving malnutrition; agricultural improvement (stock inoculation and improvement; anti-erosion measures); education (primary school; Makerere College). A broadcast by Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald calls for steady progress towards a still distant goal. A tribal council meeting illustrates "the giving of responsibility is an essential part of Britain's policy in Africa." Closing scenes show an agricultural exhibition, where all the programmes are displayed and lessons repeated.


Film: music recorded by Alexander Shaw in East Africa (according to COI file)

Remarks: a stereotyped statement of paternalistic (and patronising) imperialism

Documentation/associated material: COI file - shotlist, synopsis, script



The Strand Film Company was formed in 1935 with Paul Rotha as director of productions, and by 1940 – when Alexander Shaw had assumed the role – advertisements stated that the company had already completed 78 films (DNL, August 1940, 20). Recognised, together with the Realist Film Unit, as the ‘leading pre-war independent documentary unit’, Strand sought to examine social problems within its sponsored documentaries (Russell, 2007, 209).

Historian Andrew Roberts has described Men of Africa simply as a ‘short film extolling British rule’ (Roberts, 1987, 200), while John MacKenzie has referred to it as ‘one of the most overtly propagandist’ of the colonial documentaries, ‘made for the Colonial Office to celebrate the work of colonial officials’ (MacKenzie, 1999, 227).

More recently, Martin Stollery has suggested that Men of Africa is ‘a hybrid between orthodox British documentary perspectives on Empire and Wright’s more romantic vision of native cultures’. The film, he suggests, ‘lauds the benevolence of British rule… but also celebrates the vibrant sights and sounds of African cultures’ (Stollery, 2005, 1494).

Rosaleen Smyth argued that ‘the case of Men of Africa demonstrates that it was easier to find money for films in defence of the Empire, to counter criticism of British neglect of the colonies, than it was to find money for films as an aid in imperial “development”’. Smyth suggested that ‘one cinematic result’ of the growing criticisms of Britain’s colonial administration was that the Colonial Marketing Board ‘managed to find £4,175 to pay the Strand Film Company’ to produce Men of Africa (Smyth, 1979, 449). When the Board ceased to function in 1939, the handling of the film reverted to the Ministry of Information, in consultation with the Colonial Office, who requested a few ‘minor alterations’ before distribution. Strand was subsequently asked to see if any of the material ‘was suitable for making into films for African audiences’, and handed material over to the Crown Film Unit in 1945 (INF 1/200). 

In May 1940, Men of Africa appeared alongside the Strand productions, Five Faces of Malaya and Wings over Empire as part of the Empire Film Week at the Tatler Cinema in London. A report in The Times explained that these films go ‘soberly to work in pointing out how our administrators work hand in hand with the natives to help them with their own problems and to educate them to the end that they may govern themselves’ (The Times, 21 May 1940, 4). Richard Griffith, an American writing in Documentary News Letter in February 1940, similarly argued that the film ‘states that Britain’s right to govern colonies is determined by the extent to which she fits them to govern themselves. In articulating this idea, Alexander Shaw’s direction has transformed the film from an apology for the British Empire into an inculcation of England’s responsibility towards subject populations’ (DNL, February 1940, 3). By now, the film was viewed within the context of the War and ‘an expert on colonial administration’ wrote in Documentary News Letter in June 1940 that ‘personally it left me with a feeling of pride that the principles for which we are fighting this war are so amply illustrated in what was once “darkest” Africa’ (DNL, June 1940, 8).

Men of Africa played in a number of theatres throughout 1940. In August, Strand advertised screenings in cinemas throughout London and in Edinburgh (DNL, August 1940, 20), while in November it played in Leeds and Manchester (DNL, November 1940, 8). The film also played to film societies, including those in Dundee and St. Andrews and the London Scientific Film Society (DNL, November 1940, 9 and May 1940, 14), while even appearing within churches – for example at the Brompton Parish Church in March 1941 (The Times, 15 May 1941, 7). By 1946, a review in Monthly Film Bulletin noted that the film could be ‘loaned free of charge’ from the Central Film Library, and suggested that ‘it should prove valuable for Youth Clubs, Discussion Groups and Senior Forms in Schools’ (MFB, 13: 145/156, 72).

Men of Africa was also available in America, appearing in 1940 in the private cinema in the British pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. In 1944 the British Vice-Consul, Harold Fox, showed the film – alongside Women at War and Message from Malta – as part of a talk to the Philadelphia Motion Pictures Forum (Chester (PA.) Times, 29 January 1944, 7). After the War, the film was made available for loan in New York (Social Studies, March 1947, 127) and at libraries, including Lethbridge Public Library in Canada (Lethbridge Herald, 16 January 1946, 6).



As contemporary reviews noted, Men of Africa outlined the need for co-operation between Britain and Africa in order that these colonies could ‘govern themselves’. ‘Africa must have her own doctors, nurses, teachers’ the commentary noted, while ‘the giving of responsibility is an essential part of Britain’s policy in Africa’. However, the film, through its contrasting representation of a modern Britain and a traditional, undeveloped Africa, suggests that this will be a slow, gradual process. Despite the perceived socialist sympathies of the Strand Film Company, Men of Africa endorses governmental colonial policy and offers a largely familiar, traditional and unchallenging representation of colonial Africa.

A paternalistic attitude is articulated throughout – ‘the People of Britain are directly responsible for the well-being of all the people of the Colonial Empire’ – and from the outset the commentary suggests that the ‘destinies of all these colonies lies with the Colonial Office in London’. The film presents a series of staged phone calls, which not only provide additional commentary from figures of authority – ‘Yes, it will all take time of course’ – but also illustrate the organised system of rule administered by the British.

This modern form of administration is contrasted with existing African society, as shots of Africa are inter-cut with those of the administration in London. For example, the introduction to Africa, which describes it as the ‘home of primitive peoples’, and uses traditional ethnographic shots – in this case topless African bodies rowing – cuts to a suited white man drafting a question in his office in London. Later, when Africans watch a film of Beefeaters in London, the commentary refers to the ‘strange life and exotic ceremonies of the West’. The commentator assumes an African voice here, and the language used – ‘strange’, ‘exotic’ – emphasises the perceived mutual incomprehension of whites and Africans. The repeated talk of ‘the white man’ – ‘much can be achieved by money and the initiative of the white man’ – similarly works to segregate the British from the Africans. 

An African member of the local government reinforces this division between British ‘civilisation’ and ‘traditional’ Africa, as he explains that ‘We want to acquire things of modern civilisation, but at the same time not relinquish our hold on our own customs and traditions’. The film highlights the pre-colonial problems within Africa – ‘once a life of fear and uncertainty’ – in order to show the perceived developments already made by the British, yet it also emphasises the need for continued British assistance. ‘British rule has brought peace but there is still a long battle to be fought with ignorance, poverty and disease’, the voiceover asserts.

The film’s conclusion does attempt to represent a move towards self-government, showing Africans at an agricultural exhibition passing on the advice and training offered to them by the British. Yet even when the film notes the successful delegation of responsibilities to the council of local tribes – the ‘first step towards self-government‘ – the examples used endorse regressive stereotypes, as the tribal chief oversees a case in which ‘two natives are disputing the ownership of a number of goats’.

The final lines – ‘For your father’s ways were good in their time, and some will be good for all time, but some you must change. For times have changed’ – may appear to address Africans directly, but the film was intended for white audiences. This suggests that the film is a further defence and justification of British colonial policy rather than a plea for African support.

Tom Rice (April 2008)


Works Cited

‘Forum Speaker Tells of British Films’, Chester (PA.) Times, 29 January 1944, 7.

‘Production and Distribution of Men of Africa’, INF 1/200 accessed at the National Archives.

Documentary News Letter, May 1940, 14. 

‘Men of Africa’, Documentary News Letter, June 1940, 7-8.

Documentary News Letter, August 1940, 20.

Documentary News Letter, November 1940, 8-9.

Griffith, Richard, ‘Films at the New York World’s Fair’, Documentary News Letter, February 1940, 3.

‘Film Preview at Public Library’, Lethbridge Herald, 16 January 1946, 6

MacKenzie, John M., ‘The Popular Culture of Empire in Britain’, The Oxford History of the British Empire Vol. IV: The Twentieth Century edited by Judith M. Brown and Wm Roger Louis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 212-231.

‘Men of Africa’, Monthly Film Bulletin, 13: 145/156 (1946), 72.

Roberts, Andrew D., ‘Africa on Film to 1940’, History in Africa, Vol. 14 (1987), 189-227.

Russell, Patrick, 100 British Documentaries (London: British Film Institute, 2007).

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The Development of British Colonial Film Policy, 1927-1939, with Special Reference to East and Central Africa’, The Journal of African History, Vol. 20, no. 3 (1979), 437-450.

Social Studies, March 1947, 127.

Stollery, Martin, ‘Basil Wright’, The Encyclopedia of Documentary Film, edited by Ian Aitken (New York: Routledge, 2005).

‘Empire Week at the Tatler Cinema’, The Times, 21 May 1940, 4.

The Times, 15 May 1941, 7.




Technical Data

Running Time:
19 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
1686 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Colonial Empire Marketing Board
Mitchell, Leslie
Shaw, Alexander
location sound
Leevers Rich
Jago, Jo
Rignold, Harry
Wright, Basil
Production company