Stories about slavery can be a tricky proposition, especially if your story is from the Caucasian point of view, because there is a delicate balance to be struck when considering the protagonist’s actions and motivations. If the character doesn’t do enough to fight slavery, they can come off as too complicit in the act itself and their motivations can feel unjustified, while if they are portrayed as the slave’s sole liberator it reinforces the “white saviour” stereotype and robs the black characters of any agency. This is the problem inherent in Daniel Dencik’s Gold Coast which has its heart in the right place but which focuses too much on how slavery makes a white man feel bad while reducing the slave characters themselves to something resembling window dressing.
It’s 1836 and historical Danish figure Joseph Wulff (Jakob Oftebro) travels to Africa by royal appointment to establish a coffee plantation on the Gold Coast. While teaching the local slaves how to plant and irrigate the coffee plants, Wulff finds his attitudes toward the slaves change and his exposure to the unbridled nature of the African landscape opens his eyes to the injustices being perpetrated by the local Governor (Morten Holst) and his cronies Dall (Anders Heinrichsen) and Herbst (Adam Ild Rohweder). Wulff then dedicates himself to freeing the slaves and tries to break the chains that bind, both literally and metaphorically.
Gold Coast is a very problematic film. The main issue is that director Dencik and co-writer Sara Isabella Jønsson Vedde can’t seem to properly connect with the larger argument behind the film. A cursory Internet search suggests that Wulff was a Dane who went to Africa in the mid-19th century who partially integrated into the African community. His letters home survive to this day and offer insight into that particular period of Danish history. He was also a slave owner. What the film tries to do is recast Wulff as a folk hero of sorts, who falls in love with the land and its people and works toward making them free from oppression.
The filmmakers also seem more interested in filming the gorgeous scenery with a Terrance Malick-like intensity, and it is beautiful, but there is at times too much lingering on a leaf covered with morning dewdrops to properly get inside Wulff’s mind and motivations. He doesn’t seem particularly upset about the slaves’ plight until he uncovers an illegal slave trading ring (slavery had not been abolished in Denmark at this point, only the trading of slaves was outlawed) and only then does he decide to do something about it. Denick tries to use the beauty of the scenery as a gateway inside Wulff’s mind and leans very heavily on narration but he remains too much of an enigma who appears to only do things when the plot requires it.
The biggest problem with this film is with the slave characters themselves, which for the most part are only seen and not heard. While all the white characters are front and centre and are allowed to emote and to go through changes, the black characters are silent and spend most of the running time semi-naked and chained together in the background. For a film that purports to comment on the abhorrent nature of slavery it doesn’t seem too bothered to find a voice or agency for any of the characters who are actually suffering through it. It is more interested in how slavery makes Wulff feel about things than actually engaging in any significant dialogue, which is strange considering the film is already taking a lot of poetic licence with historical fact. Is it too much to ask to introduce a black character with a strong identity and motivation?
The performances on the whole are pretty average, with not a lot of work done to portray any of the characters beyond their prescribed roles; the Governor and his men are evil, Wulff is saintly, etc. Jakob Oftebro, beyond thinning himself down for the role doesn’t emote all that much, which adds to the problems with getting inside Wulff’s psychology. The cinematography is lavish with some wonderfully realised nature photography but best of all is Angelo Badalamenti’s strange electronic score. To have such contemporary music playing over a period drama feels counterintuitive but it works brilliantly here, at times elevating the film towards something close to what the filmmakers intended.
Gold Coast is a film of many problems that can’t quite be papered over with wonderful cinematography, as much as it tries. There is an attempt to create a more spiritual through line for the story, one that flirts with very important issues rather than personifying them. It seems the filmmakers felt that perhaps they wanted to make a more cinematic experience than a narrative one, but rather than ambiguous the whole affair feels undercooked. If there was a fear by the filmmakers that tackling the issue of slavery directly would put them in hot water the opposite is actually true, the film does not go far enough to justify its narrative choices and it becomes a pointless exercise when it should be an incendiary indictment.