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Chigorimbo recalls Denzel Washington’s stay in Zimbabwe

By Godwin Muzari 

When Hollywood star Denzel Washington walked the streets of Harare in 1984, he was not a popular face. Then, a few people had watched his films and he did not have any problems doing his personal business in the city without distraction. He cannot do that in this era. He will definitely be mobbed and his arrival would cause chaos right from the airport. He now needs tight security.

The young Denzel Washington as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom
The young Denzel Washington as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom

Yet one of the films that contributed to his popularity was shot in Zimbabwe. It is called “Cry Freedom” and it was based on the story of the late South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Bantu Biko. He was simply known as Steve Biko.

Denzel came to Zimbabwe to play Biko in the film and one of the assistant directors of “Cry Freedom” was Stephen Chigorimbo. Most people know Chigorimbo as John Huni from yesteryear soap “Studio 263” that was popular on our screens in the early 2000s.

“Studio 263” was a launch pad for most actors’ careers, yet Chigorimbo was actually marking a third decade in the arts industry when he joined the soap.

Stephen Chigorimbo who played the role of John Huni in the soap opera — Studio 263.
Stephen Chigorimbo who played the role of John Huni in the soap opera — Studio 263.

His experience in the industry involved being Denzel’s assistant director and taking a prominent role in one of the most successful films to be shot in Zimbabwe titled “King Solomon’s Mines”.

“King Solomon’s Mines” also had its own Hollywood stars that included Sharon Stone, Richard Chamberlain and Herbert Lom.

It was indeed a sweet period for the Zimbabwean film industry as the top stars came to rub shoulders with our own Fidelis “Mudhara Danger” Cheza and Simon “Mutirowafanza” Shumba who took part in “King Solomon’s Mines”. (May their souls rest in peace).

Unfortunately, most of the local actors’ stories are a frustrating contrast to Denzel Washington’s current biography yet they were on the same cast.

This week Chigorimbo went down memory lane, recalling how he showed Denzel around Harare as they did “Cry Freedom” and how they built a “city” near Snake Park to shoot “King Solomon’s Mines”.

“I began as a stage actor and that role exposed me to good networks until I got my first film role in ‘The Albino’ (also titled ‘Whispering Death’) in 1974. The director was from Germany and there was a problem of accent clarity between him and the cast. I had worked with a number of whites and I could understand him better, so he ended up giving me the role of assistant director,” Chigorimbo recalled.

“That role was the beginning of my roles directing movies. When the makers of ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ came in the early 80s they had heard about me and I was engaged as a second assistant director. The movie did very well and I became popular with international filmmakers. We built a city we called Tongoola in Somerby near Snake Park and that is where most scenes were shot.

“I visited Britain just after the movie and that is when I met Donald Woods the author of ‘Asking for Trouble’, which is based on his interaction with Steve Biko. There was a plan to make it into a film titled ‘Cry Freedom’ and I immediately got involved in the project.”

Woods was a white South African journalist whose activism against apartheid led him to clash with the government and he was forced to flee the country due to persecution.

Given his background and the political climate across the Limpopo, Wood’s planned film could not be done in South Africa. Zimbabwe became a convenient choice following the success of “King Solomon’s Mines”.

“It was easy for me to convince authorities back home about plans of the pending film. I phoned minister Nathan Shamuyarira while I was in London and told him about the project. He asked me to do a concept paper and I sent it. The script for ‘Cry Freedom’ was already done and he requested for it after seeing the concept.”

Chigorimbo and director of the film Richard Attenborough came to Harare to set groundwork and the Government supported the film financially as it resonated with Zimbabwe’s backing to the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

“Because of my teeth gap that would have made a make-up for a Biko look-alike easy, Richard initially considered me for the lead role. However, after further consultations, he said he wanted the film to send a message about the wickedness of apartheid to the international community and he needed international actors to give the production broader appeal.

“We began watching American productions listing probable characters for the role. Denzel had a role in drama series ‘St Elsewhere’ and he was shortlisted for the role.

“Richard travelled to the US on his mission and he found Denzel as the best character.”

The director’s worry was that he wanted a character with teeth gap similar to Biko’s and it seemed as if that feature was not on Denzel.

“I always laugh when I remember Richard calling me to say our probable main actor had just removed his tooth to suit the character. Of course he was joking because Denzel naturally has a teeth gap and the artificial filling was simply removed for the role. Most people do not know that he has that gap, but when you watch ‘Cry Freedom’ you will see it.”

The director brought Denzel and a few other actors to Zimbabwe and the making of the movie began. It was shot in Gweru, Bulawayo, Mutare, Harare and Chitungwiza. Chigorimbo became assistant director.

He recalls how he would go around the streets of Harare showing Denzel around.

“He was with his wife and kid and he was staying at Holiday Inn. My flat was along Seventh Street and we used to walk to my house and to his hotel room without people recognising him. He was not well known then.

“When we were not shooting we had lunch at my house and would have dinner at the hotel. We became close besides being actor and assistant director in the film.”

After “Cry Freedom”, Chigorimbo did many other projects that saw him touring many parts of the world. He did various local dramas and he developed a close relationship with the late “Studio 263” producer Godwin Mawuru.

They mooted the idea of the soap together and joined hands with Aaron Chiundura Moyo in the early days of the production. Because of his busy international schedule, Chigorimbo joined the soap later and became popular as John Huni or Jena of JH Contsructions.

He was also one of the directors of the soap until he left in 2006. Currently Chigorimbo is a film consultant and is working on an online television station that is likely to be complete by the end of the year.

Before taking film full-time, Chigorimbo worked in the insurance industry and was one of the first training managers in the industry in the 1970s. The Herald

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