Trinidadian Phillip Louis Ulric Cross (1 May 1917 – 4 October 2013) was a Royal Air Force hero, broadcaster, Pan Africanism icon, and eminent jurist both on the African continent and in his home country. So any film chronicling his impressive and varied life was always going to be a Herculean task.
But while Frances-Anne Solomon’s Hero: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Ulric Cross does not completely capture this legendary man (you would probably need a six-hour long mini series to do that) it does provide a fantastic insight into his historic journey. I had the privilege of viewing Hero at the gala premiere of the 13th annual Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival and here is my spoiler free review in three slices:
Slice 1 – Blast from the past
A Hollywood studio making this film could have shelled out tens of millions to recreate Trinidad and Tobago in the early 20th century, World War II era-London and Africa in the 1950s/1960s using elaborate sets and a healthy dose of CGI. And while the Hero production team did shoot in Trinidad, the UK and Ghana, a multi-million budget they did not have. So the recreation of these varied times and locations were done with costuming and props, but primarily with the frequent interspersing of archive footage. And while it may have been an inevitable choice it does give the film a unique style and the biopic a docudrama aesthetic which works well. The style also gives Solomon room to utilise some interesting scene transitions.
Praise must also be given to the cinematographer for the use of lighting which range from deeply saturated sepia colours at a UK pub, which feels like looking at an old photo, to blinding whites as Ulric and his girlfriend Ann share intimate moments. On intimate moments the film includes footage of the real Ulric Cross in an ailing state which at times felt a bit too intimate. Returning to the positive side the ethereal vocals by Trini musician Muhammad Muwakil were a great fit for some of the more introspective scenes.
Slice 2 – Worthy performances
Local films at times suffer from having performances of varying quality. You may have an overall decent cast but there are just a couple of actors who stand out like an off note and make the melody slightly less pleasing. But Hero across the board delivers solid, pitch perfect performances. The core of the film is Nickolai Salcedo’s performance as Cross and Hero could have triumphed or crashed based on him alone. But Salcedo, who at times was too theatrical in the short Salty Dog, delivers a nuanced, subdued, classy, fiery and impressive take on this Trini hero. I had the honour of meeting Cross years ago while wearing my journalist’s cap and while Salcedo does not completely channel the effortless charm and wit of the man he does well to recreate his poise, spark of humour and strident vision. I do believe Salcedo would have made him proud.
Kudos must also go to the rest of the cast including Jamaican-born Peter Williams as Cross’s affable war buddy James “Pony” MacFarlane, English actress Pippa Nixon as his strong minded and devoted girlfriend (and later) wife Ann, British actor Joseph Marcell (Geoffrey from Fresh Prince of Bel Air) as the charming Trini historian CLR James; and Fraser James (British of African Caribbean heritage) in a sterling take on Pan African icon George Padmore.
Slice 3 – An iconic tale
As mentioned above I interviewed Cross years ago but it was restricted to his wartime experiences. After watching the film I realised I had barely scratched the surface of his extraordinary life. The first half of the film deals with his early days in Trinidad, romancing Ann, briefly with his time as a Royal Air Force navigator and his days in post-war London. I expected to see more of his war days and thought it would have added some additional excitement to the film so I found the movie skimming over it somewhat unfortunate.
The second half of Hero focuses on Cross’ work with the Pan African movement and the high profile roles he held with Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister and president. This aspect was enlightening and informative though the pacing does begin to drag before the end. I was also pleasantly surprised about the spy intrigue sub-plot of the film which added a layer of tension to all the political machinations. Ulric Cross really did live quite an extraordinary life. And while Hero is not without its flaws and omissions (including not referencing two of Cross’ three children) it pays fitting tribute to a true hero of a man and is a must see for every Trinidadian or anyone with an interest in Caribbean or Pan African history.
Rating: Hero gets 4.5/5 stars
For my review of TTFF 2017 Best TT Feature and People’s Choice Award winner Green Days by the River you can click here.