Monday, February 14, 2011

Film: Sonny Boy - A Dutch interracial love story

Sonny Boy is a Dutch big budget film based on the true story of a forbidden love between a black Surinamese man and a Dutch white woman that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century in the Netherlands. The film is an adaptation of the bestselling novel "Sonny Boy" of Annejet van der Zijl.

The Dutch film Sonny Boy opens in 1928 and tells the c story of Waldemar, a 19-year-old black student from Suriname (then part of the Netherlands), and a married Dutchwoman in her 40s, Rika, who fall head over heels in love.

A first test of the strength of their love arrives when they discover that she is pregnant. A second one arrives more than a decade later, when they hide several Jews in their home during WWII.

The film is directed by Dutch director Maria Peters.

The premiere was on January 27th.

About the book

Sonny Boy (and some pictures of the real family)

‘Sonny Boy’, the title of an Al Jolson song from 1928, was the nickname given to Waldemar Nods and Rika van der Lans’ little boy. 1928 was the year their impossible love began, a love they kept alive against all the odds.

The contrast could not have been greater: Waldemar was a seriousminded black student from Paramaribo in Surinam, not yet twenty, son of a gold prospector and grandson of a woman who had yet to free herself from the chains of slavery; Rika was the daughter of a Catholic potato wholesaler, warm-hearted and obstinate, a married mother of four, approaching forty when they met. She was his landlady. When he moved in she had only just left her husband and was penniless, living with her children in a tiny rented apartment in The Hague.

Drawing on archives, correspondence and interviews with family members, Annejet van der Zijl has reconstructed their astonishing love story. When Rika became pregnant the scandal was complete; her own family responded no less harshly than the outside world. Didn’t Waldemar came from a culture where male fidelity was notoriously lacking? And who would look after the moski moski, as the Surinamese would call him, the little brown-skinned boy with dark curls and blue eyes? They had no work, no money, no friends, and the Depression had begun. Perhaps hardest of all, Rika lost her other children after a fierce battle in which her husband was awarded custody.

Contrary to all expectations, the ‘impossible’ but hard-working and harmonious couple managed to create a prosperous business that generated a good income. Under Waldemar and Rika’s unconventional management, Pension Walda became a favourite haunt of revue artistes, colonials on leave from the East Indies, and German seaside holidaymakers. (On the photo 'Sonny boy' with his father on the beach in Scheveningen.)

But Sonny Boy is more than just a love story. It describes the everyday racism of the 1930s and the horrors of Nazism. When Pension Walda was requisitioned by the Germans during the occupation, Waldemar and Rika moved to a house where they soon had guests of a different kind: Jews in hiding. In 1944 they were betrayed and arrested. Both died in captivity. (On the photo 'Sonny boy' with his father on the beach in Scheveningen.)

Sonny Boy, in whom they invested all their desperate hopes and dreams, was left behind, alone. Annejet van der Zijl has done an excellent job of interweaving the personal history of one specific couple with the larger mainstream history of crisis, war and betrayal. (See source here.) In the picture (left) the present-day Sonny Boy.

Black critique

But there is some black criticism on the film. The extra dimension is of course the relationship between a white Dutch woman and a Surinamese black man, but some question if even by present-day standards a relationship between 19 year old black male and a divorced white woman of almost 40 with two children would be regarded as a “normal” relationship.

To some extend I agree with the criticism, somehow it seems that because Waldemar is black and “exotic” different norms apply.


  1. I have a question...
    I am currently living in the United States and I am Afro-German. I have lived in the US for most of my life and am thinking
    about moving back to Germany in the near future. However, I am
    worried about how I will be received by and fit in with German
    society. Will I be harassed, will I have difficulty finding work, renting an apartment, getting into bars and clubs, just because of my skin color? In the United States, while there is some racism, even the racists still consider blacks as Americans. The nice thing about the United States is that no matter what color you are, if someone asks you were you're from and you say your from New York for example,
    it ends there. There is no, "But where are you really from?"

    So I was wondering, what is the most ethnically diverse city in
    Germany? If I moved to Germany, as a single half-white, half-black man in my late 20's, I'd like to move to a city with a large black community. Do you have any suggestion as to what cities that would be? I have heard that particularly Hamburg, Frankfurt and Berlin have large Afro communities. I have also heard that I want to avoid any cities in Eastern Germany because of xenophobia and neo-nazism. Is that true? Any thoughts on this would be much

  2. I disagree with you...I am originally from Germany and I find that Germans accept people for who they are, much more so than Americans. Americans are waaayyyy more racist towards blacks and others that are non-white. So personally, I think you'd be much more accepted for who you are, in Germany. My family too is multi racial and we are much more comfortable in Germany. If you have lived in the US most of your life, you more than likely have an American mind set and American ways...think outside of the American ways, there's a lot more the world has to offer. Good luck with your relocation, I hope you fall in love with the country of your roots!

  3. @afroeurope
    The criticism makes me think of Fassbinder's 'Fear Eats The Soul' (1974) a difficult and controversial film that is not at all patronizing or politically correct, a must see, which will make you feel embarassed and make you think (but you won't have any answers)
    Europe is indeed not a place where skinheads are running after blacks all the time. You can have a perfectly comfortable life here, with many friends of different origing.
    It is much more complex than that, and finding an appartement can be difficult sometimes for foreign looking people. But of course, there is a good life here too.
    The perspective on Europe or America being more racist than the other is a complex one. Some things that are totally racist in America (black face e.g.) are considered by most Europeans as tradition, and not meant as an offence. Americans are tempted to interpret these things differently. Just as Europeans consider the overt racial talk on American TV (black this, white that, latino,) and all racial data and statistics a kind of racism. Because America is very much racially conscious.

  4. Sibo, thanks for the tip. But Ali in the film 'Fear Eats The Soul' is not 'fresh off the boat' and 19!

  5. I was very encouraged to find this site. I wanted to thank you for this special read. I definitely savored every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.

  6. Why don't you move to Africa? Why are you ashamed of being half black?

  7. Liked the film very much, and had to wait a long time for it to reach Montreal. As for the age difference, as the woman in the film says, when the man is 17 years older, no big thing.

    That these two people really loved each other was proven by their lives. It is said that 'the heart has reasons which reason knows nothing of'. While that may not be fully true, who is anyone to judge when when people show longterm that their love is real?

    Hope of the books is translated into English - will certainly read it.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...