From back-of-town boy’ to screen icon
It’s a story that begins almost a century ago.
If it was a film, it would open in the darkened auditorium of a small Hamilton cinema with a close shot of a young boy. He’s watching, spellbound, as a preposterous procession of flickering black-and-white images march across a movie screen.
The year is 1922. The scene the old Aeolian Hall on Angle Street. And the film, a one or two-reel Hoot Gibson western, has cast a hypnotic spell on a young Earl Cameron.
Cameron was just 5 that year and the motion picture industry, which already held him firmly in its thrall, wasn’t much older.
The storytelling techniques and pantomime acting of the silent films that captivated Cameron from the moment he first glimpsed the interplay of light and shadows washing across a screen seem impossibly crude by today’s standards.
And the subject matter was positively derisory.
Most of those early films were simple (not to mention simple-minded) morality tales — struggles between good and evil as played out by ridiculously overblown, white-hatted heroes and moustache-twirling baddies. Somehow, despite being routinely outnumbered, outgunned and outwitted, the exaggerated paladins of courage, selflessness and derring-do always triumphed over the dastardly designs of the equally cartoonish evildoers by the final fade-out. And got the girl, to boot.
Despite its obvious technical and aesthetic shortcomings, the new medium of motion pictures, with its idealised characters, faraway settings and unyielding moral codes, proved instantly addictive. Many youngsters, in particular, gave themselves over wholly to the moviegoing habit. At the time, theatres such as Bermuda’s Aeolian Hall were among the most mysterious and exciting places on the whole island for children. When Cameron left his house on nearby Princess Street, entered the Aeolian’s doors and planted himself in one of its cracked-leather seats, the magic lamp of the projector immediately whisked him far away from Bermuda’s 20 claustrophobic square miles to the Wild West. Or the South Seas. Or the North-West Frontier (or at least the studio backlot approximations of those exotic locales). And he was also transported from his own woes.
The youngest of six children, Cameron’s stonemason father had died suddenly in 1922. His mother took a succession of jobs in Bermuda’s hotels to keep the family together. It was a hardscrabble life, one made even more onerous by what he has called the “rigid form of racial discrimination”, which existed on the island at the time. “The schools, cinemas, hotels and even churches practised this evil way of life, which was contrary to the ways of the God I had always believed in,” he has said.
Perhaps it was natural that he would seek both escapism and the illusion of justice and happy endings at the movies, since he now knew fair play was far from guaranteed in real life. As an adult, of course, it was a yearning for fair play, fair-mindedness and balance that informed both Cameron’s decision to embrace the Baha’í faith and his choice in film roles when he himself joined the flickering giants he had so marvelled at as a child.
And perhaps the movies were also responsible for instilling a sense of wanderlust in Cameron. For while still a teenager he joined the merchant marine, travelling to all parts of North and South America and Europe in search of adventure — and meaning — before finding himself stranded in England on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War. He drifted into stage work during the war, more out of necessity than artistry. As he has said, there were simply very few avenues open to young black men in wartime Britain other than menial jobs. Making his professional theatrical debut as a bit player in a 1942 West End musical comedy, Earl Cameron immediately found acting to be more rewarding — both financially and personally — than washing dishes in a London restaurant.
Shedding his natural shyness like a snake’s winter skin when he was on stage, he quickly demonstrated a remarkable versatility and range, appearing in everything from madcap comedy revues to melodramas.
He threw himself into the uncertainties and randomness of a working actor’s touring life with various British repertory companies. Barnstorming venues throughout Britain and as far away as India, the non-stop changes in roles and plays and theatrical styles allowed him to refine his raw talents and make a living without, as he wryly remarked, ever once having to resort to charity or theft. He eventually trained under renowned voice coach Amanda Ira Aldridge (previous students had included no less a stage luminary than Paul Robeson, who she had prepared for his Shakespearean debut in Othello). And by the early 1950s, Cameron had become a fixture on the British stage, considered not just a good black actor, but a reliably good actor. And then the movies came calling.
The movies had grown up along with Cameron. More sophisticated, more accomplished and far more reflective of the complex natures of the societies in which they were produced, by the 1950s cinema had evolved from a novelty to a dominant global industry and even, at times, an art form. But morality tales, albeit of an altogether more subtle and nuanced kind than the quaint westerns that had so captivated him as a child, were still a part of the cinema’s stock in trade.
Racial prejudice was an issue depicted, and challenged, in many of the British films that Cameron was cast in, particularly early on in his screen career. A wave of West Indian immigration to Britain in the immediate postwar era had brought the vexed question of race relations to the forefront of British life. And while the country was struggling to come to terms with some of its uglier new cultural realities, more socially conscious members of the British film industry sought to address the matter, indirectly but still potently, in a series of pioneering dramas underscoring the corrosive and corrupting effects of casual and institutional racism. No less an authority than the British Film Institute has said from the moment he first appeared on screen, as a young Jamaican sailor in Ealing Studios’ ground-breaking Pool of London in 1951, “Earl Cameron brought a breath of fresh air to the British film industry’s stuffy depictions of race relations.”
In racially themed films such as Simba (1955), the award-winning Sapphire (1959) and Flame In The Streets (1961), Cameron invested his characters with a grace, intelligence and moral authority that often far surpassed those social dramas’ well-intentioned but sometimes clumsily executed progressive agendas.
And his film characterisations were always recognisably human, somewhat larger than life, perhaps, but vulnerable and sometimes fallible as well as being resourceful, sensitive and dignified.
Cameron portrayed individuals, not stock stereotypes — particularly not the supposedly positive black stereotypes — noble, self-sacrificing, usually dispensable, which unimaginative American film-makers have fallen back upon from the late 1950s up to the present day.
In many ways Bermuda’s Earl Cameron, who still describes himself as “a back-of-town boy — very much so — that’s my background and I’m very happy and proud of it”, was the British film industry’s counterpart to Sidney Poitier. As has been said of his Bahamian-born opposite number in American cinema throughout much the same period, Cameron brought “three-dimensional characters to people who may have never met a black person, much less enjoyed their company for a few hours. He played characters that people wanted to know better”.
And, as was also the case with Poitier, ultimately it was Cameron’s integrity as much as his quiet but powerful presence that captured the public’s imagination, and their sympathies.
Aside from his work in more socially conscious films, Cameron has, of course, appeared in less challenging movie and television fare over the years. His credits include the James Bond blockbuster Thunderball (1965) in which he played Pinder, head of the British Secret Service’s Bahamian station, alongside Sean Connery’s 007.
Still active and still acting at 98, recent films include The Interpreter (2005) with Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman, the Oscar-winning Dame Helen Mirren vehicle The Queen (2006) and the cerebral 2010 Leonardo DiCaprio science-fiction hit Inception. Just last month he attended a London screening of Sapphire, a perceptive racial allegory masquerading as a crime drama, in which a light-skinned pregnant girl is murdered on that city’s Hampstead Heath. The victim is thought to be white by two police detectives — until her black brother (Cameron) shows up. The film goes on to portray the commonplace racial hostility of the day directed towards West Indian immigrants, challenging racist assumptions then with its fully realised depictions of middle-class black characters and communities. Reflecting on his 70-year-career before that recent London event, Cameron said he was proud of “playing a small part” in breaking down racial barriers.
“Racism is deeply retained in the psyche of most human beings,” he said “It’s a sickness in the world. Not just among white people but among human beings. We need to come together as one race of people and forget the colour of our skin and shape of our eyes.”
Seemingly on a near-certain path to Hollywood stardom after his success in the British film industry, Cameron abruptly retired from acting in 1974. He relocated from Britain to the Solomon Islands to concentrate on business ventures, family life and his Baha’í faith.
For him, acting had always been a means to an end — personal and spiritual fulfilment — rather than an end in itself, and he still has no regrets about walking away from what would likely have been a busy, and lucrative, Hollywood career.
“Having found my faith, that was more important for me, rather than worrying about Hollywood,” he said. “Hollywood is very decadent place.
“There’s drugs and sex and alcohol. I didn’t need that kind of life.”
Cameron spent 15 years away from the film industry before returning to Britain — and acting — after the death of first wife, Audrey, in 1989.
In recent years he has returned to Bermuda numerous times with second wife, Barbara, receiving the Bermuda Arts Council’s lifetime achievement award in 1999 and the Bermuda International Film Festival’s Prospero Award for his collective body of work in 2007.
He was also on hand in 2012 when the City Hall Theatre, located just a stone’s throw from where he grew up and where he trod the boards in a 1970 production of Bertholt Brecht’s Galileo directed by future Oscar nominee Mike Leigh, was renamed in his honour. And in 2009, his adopted country honoured Earl Cameron when he was appointed a Commander of the British Empire in the Queen’s New Year Honours.
His extraordinary life’s journey has taken him a very long way from Angle Street’s Aeolian Theatre. And his transcendent personal example has come to exemplify normally unattainable ideals in ways the movie industry he’s worked in has attempted — and routinely failed — to do ever since the days of those Hoot Gibson horse operas that captured his attention as a child.
With his 99th birthday approaching in August, the end of this story has obviously yet to be written. But knowing his indefatigable nature and indomitable spirit, one thing can be all but guaranteed: Earl Cameron, one of Bermuda’s favourite sons and most enduring talents, will surely delight and awe us again many more times before the final fade-out.