Story of distinguished 'Trini' is opening night film at Caribbean Tales Festival
September 3, 2018
Just before he passed away in June 2010, well-known Trinidadian lawyer Desmond Allum made one last request to close family friend Anne-Marie Stewart who headed the province’s anti-racism secretariat launched 26 years ago under then premier Bob Rae.
For nearly a decade, he had been advocating for a docudrama on the life and times of his friend and neighbour Ulric Cross who was a highly decorated airman during World War II and an eminent jurist and diplomat.
Promising to grant the deathbed request, Stewart raised funds to kick-start the project.
Her expertise, however, is in creating and leading effective organizations with an emphasis on equity and diversity management, and not filmmaking which is her daughter – Frances-Anne Solomon’s – domain.
“When Desmond suggested about 15 years ago that it would be a good idea to make a film about Ulric, I think he really wanted me to do it,” said Solomon, the grand-daughter of the late Patrick Solomon who was one of the architects of Trinidad & Tobago’s independence movement. “He went through my mom and they came to me for advice which I provided. When I saw that she was in some distress after making the commitment to Desmond, I picked up the ball and ran with it.”
‘Hero’, which explores not just the life, but the time that Cross was born into and made a huge impact, is the opening night film at this year’s Caribbean Tales Film Festival (CTTF).
Stewart and Lisa Wickham are the film’s executive co-producers.
Born in Belmont, Cross attended Tranquility High School and St. Mary’s College where he studied English, Greek, Latin, French and Spanish. He was also part of a book club that published a magazine, ‘The Dawn’.
After graduation, he worked with the Trinidad Guardian newspaper, in a solicitor’s office and on the railroad before joining the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1941.
“The world was drowning in fascism and America was not yet in the war, so I decided to do something about it and volunteered to fight for the RAF,” he said in, ‘For King and County: The Service and Sacrifice of the British West Indian Military’, co-written by Justice Dr. Irving Andre and Gabriel Christian. “I felt no racial prejudice during or after my training. The only thing was that we were surprised of how ignorant regular English people were of their own history and what was going on around Europe and the world.”
A squadron leader who flew 80 missions over Germany, Cross was among 250 Trinidadians & Tobagonians that saw combat action in the RAF during the war.
Nearly 50 of them died.
Through his extraordinary exploits, Irving said Cross shattered the myth that Blacks lacked the intellectual wherewithal and specialist skills to become RAF airmen.
“He along with Dudley Thompson and William Strachan of Jamaica, Guyanese Cy Grant, Arthur Weekes of Barbados, Dominican Harold Bryant, Collins Joseph of T & T and thousands of other West Indians established a glorious tradition of excellence and accomplishments in the RAF for which we are eternally grateful,” added the Superior Court judge and prolific author.
After the war, Cross worked briefly at the Colonial Office before enrolling at Middle Temple to study law. Called to the Bar in 1949, he served as senior counsel in the attorney general’s office in Ghana where he met Maurice Charles, Canada’s first Black judge who died in June 2012 at age 92.
Cross also spent seven years in the Cameroon as a lawyer and 12 years as a high court judge in Tanzania and T & T before joining the diplomatic service. He was the twin-island republic’s ambassador to France, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Finland and high commissioner in London.
In June 2011, the Air Guard Station at Piarco International Airport in Trinidad was renamed after the Caribbean’s most decorated RAF member who, a few months later that year, was bestowed with The Order of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago, the country’s highest national honour.
Solomon interviewed Cross before he died five years ago at age 96.
“When I began my research, all I knew about Ulric was that he was a highly decorated war hero,” she said. “That’s significant. But as a socialist and anti-imperialist, I felt that wasn’t a story I was really interested in telling. The story of Black people fighting in White folks battles doesn’t impress me. However, as I got past the research on his illustrious military career, I found that this was a man who, while living in England in the 1950s, came into the orbit of George Padmore and CLR James and became part of that whole Pan-African Movement.
“He was recruited by Padmore to go to Ghana to work with his protégé Kwame Nkrumah as that country had just become the first independent nation in Africa. Padmore was recruiting professionals from the Caribbean because of the high education system there to go and help create the Pan-African dream. That caught my interest and I was determined to tell Cross’ story.”
Solomon, who explored her own family’s story in her 1994 film, ‘What My Mother Told Me’, is confident the docudrama will resonate with the audience.
“Very few positive stories are told about Caribbean professionals,” she said. “Most of the representation in the media of Blacks is that of pimps, gangsters and drug dealers. The images that we see of people of colour are derogatory. Here was someone who was a war hero, a judge and Pan-Africanist. We don’t have to go back to the kings and queens of Africa, create myths like ‘Wakanda’ or make up comic book characters. This was a real life hero.”
The research was extensive and time-consuming since Solomon and her crew didn’t have a lot of real footage to work with.
“We took the little bits and pieces that Ulric was willing to divulge,” she pointed out. “A lot of the time was spent on research and placing him. He was in Congo just after Patrice Lumumba was assassinated. He was also in Tanzania when Dar es Salaam was a hotbed of revolt during Julius Nyerere’s presidency and in Ghana at independence. He was at these key moments in history and we were able to join the dots and also work with the actor to figure out what was really going on in his head.”
Singer and actor Nickolai Salcedo plays Ulric Cross in the 100-minute film which will also open the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival on September 18.
Solomon met him in 2013 in the twin-island republic while shooting a short film.
“He worked with us in a scene in a film that I was doing,” she said. “He kind of looks like Ulric in that he’s tall, thin and dark. How many actors of that age and look can you really find in T & T? I asked Nickolai to read the script about a month before we left Port-of-Spain for England and Canada to do more shoots. I decided to make the decision who was going play the lead role before I left and I called him up and asked if he was willing to travel with us to the two countries. He agreed without hesitation.”
Admitting that he didn’t know much about Cross prior to being cast, Salcedo – who has spent the last year in Toronto working on the project – is excited about his first major acting role.
“Just walking in the shoes of people of different era is special,” he said. “I feel like I have some connection to Ulric in that my grandfather lived in Belmont and he knows some of his family members. During my research, I asked my grand-dad what life was like in Belmont back then. This has been an edifying and life-changing experience for me. I have gained so much hands-on experience in the last five years.”
Working on this documentary since 2011, Solomon acknowledges it has been the most challenging project she has been engaged in.
“I have asked myself many times why and I think it’s because I really wanted to do justice to this story,” she added. “The challenge was there wasn’t a lot information since very little was documented.”
The film also features St. Lucian-born British actor Joseph Marcell who is best known for his role as ‘Geoffrey, the Butler’, in the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’.
A special preview screening of ‘Hero’ takes place at the CTTF opening gala on September 5 at the Royal Theatre, 608 College St.
Showtime is 8 p.m.