Responses to Screening of “Sonny Boy” in Europe

Recently Afro-Europe blog featured the film adaptation of bestselling novel Sonny Boy, by Annejet van der Zijl. The film, which was directed by Dutch filmmaker Maria Peters and premiered on January 27, 2011, is 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. [Also see previous post Annejet van der Zijl’s “Sonny Boy” on the Big Screen.]

Afro-Europe brings to the fore criticism of the film by the Black European community: “The Dutch film Sonny Boy opens in 1928 and tells the 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. [. . .] 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.”

Here is a review of the book, from Nederlands Letternfonds, which also reflects how the film touches so many sensitive chords and, in many ways, has elicited varied visceral responses.

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 come 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. 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.

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.

Watch the Sonny Boy trailer here: 

For original reviews, see and

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