In one of the first scenes of Sam – A Saxonwe see Samuel Meffie (Malick Bauer) running full-tilt through the streets of Dresden. Sam jumps out. Not just because he’s (literally) chasing an ambulance. But because this is 1989. We are in Saxony, deep in communist East Germany. And Sam is a black man, six feet tall.
He runs past a parked police car. The officers sound the siren. Sam stops. He raised his hands. The agents, in the green khaki uniforms of the Deutsche Volkspolizei, get out of the car. It looks bad. Then Sam turns around and starts to explain. His girlfriend is in that ambulance, about to give birth to their son. “They didn’t want to ride with them,” he says. He then quotes Kierkegaard as saying that only one who hears the cry of a woman in labor at the moment of childbirth “knows the real meaning of life.”
The policeman is impressed. He offers Sam a ride to the hospital. On the way, he makes him an offer: “Have you ever thought about joining the police force?”
“I know it’s hard for people to understand why I became a police officer in East Germany as a black man,” says the real Samuel Meffie over a cup of tea in a café in Cologne. “But for me the police stood for order, justice and security. Those were things that were missing in my life at that time.”
When Meffie finally joined the Dresden Police, it was 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before German reunification. He was one of the last officers trained under the East German system. And the very first black policeman in the GDR.
Sam – A Saxon is the story of Meffie, or at least the 7 hour TV version. The series, the first German-language original from Disney+, will debut on Hulu in the US and Disney+ worldwide on Wednesday, April 26.
Those expecting a feel-good underdog story – that Disney specialty – are in for a shock. That quote from Kierkegaard is a hint. The philosopher, known as the father of existentialism, saw the world as suffering inevitably. And Samuel Meffie has had his share. If he started the 1990s as (literally) the poster boy for multiculturalism in newly reunited Germany, he would end it behind bars as a violent criminal and internationally wanted fugitive.
Samuel’s father, who was born in Cameron and came to East Germany as a student, died on the day of his son’s birth, of mysterious, likely criminal causes (Meffie suspects he was poisoned by his colleagues). His mother, forced to raise two children on her own, was physically and physiologically abusive. “It was hell, in mini format”, writes Meffie in his autobiography, Me, a Saxonco-written with German historian and playwright Lothar Kittstein, and recently published in English under the one-word title Sam.
“One of the first lessons I learned in life was ‘you are never safe,’” Meffie says slowly in a deep, soft voice. “I think it was my childhood, the chaos and trauma of that time, that shaped my image of the police as the only ones bringing order, helping people in need.”
In East Germany in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before German reunification, chaos was the order of the day. The collapse of the East German state had left a power vacuum, a vacuum that criminal gangs and far-right thugs were eager to fill.
“It’s almost impossible for Westerners to imagine what it was like, but the neo-Nazis just marched through the streets of Dresden, hundreds,” says Meffie. “If they saw a black person, they would chase, attack and beat him… But within the police force, we were a brotherhood. I’ve never run away from a fight. That earned me respect. If for a while it was a place of solidarity for me, of camaraderie.
In 1992, Meffie posed for photos for an anti-racism campaign. His face, above the words “A Saxon”, was plastered 20 feet tall on billboards around Dresden. The campaign hit a nerve. At the time, when the news was filled with images of right-wing rioters and attacks on asylum seekers in East Germany, Samuel Meffie offered a different story for a country eager to project a progressive, open and multicultural image to the world. He became a media star, toured the talk show and struggled, with that deep, soft voice of his – flavored with just a hint of his hometown Saxon accent – to express the frustration, rage and violent rage in the streets of Eastern Europe. to lay. Germany.
In his book, Meffie describes that time as a media safari. The rush of sudden celebrity and public attention, he writes, was “cocaine for the soul”: intoxicating and poisonous.
“The ‘A Saxon’ campaign had the right idea at the right place at the right time,” says Meffie, “but they had the wrong person. I carried a backpack full of unresolved problems and traumas.”
It didn’t end well. Frustrated with the police and state politics, Meffie quit in 1994. He founded his own security company and imagined himself to be “sort of Robin Hood” to the city’s defenseless. Instead, faced with money problems, he became a debt collector and enforcer for one of Dresden’s most notorious gangsters. Meffie’s fall from grace depicted in the final episodes of Sam – A Saxon, would have him arrested and sentenced to more than 9 years in prison for theft. He served 7 years, with time off for good behavior.
“I first heard about the story of Samuel from Tyron Ricketts. This was in 2006. We had cast him to play the first black detective in an East German procedural (Leipzig Homicide), which was a big deal at the time,” says Jörg Winger, producer and co-creator (with Ricketts) of Sam – A Saxon. “We tried to pitch the story as a series a long time ago. But we kept getting the same response: “I personally like the story, but I don’t think the (German) audience is ready for it.”
It took a decade and a half, a revolution in German TV and a new social reckoning before a channel was ready to take a chance on Sam’s story.
“Partly it’s the TV industry. The influence of Netflix, Amazon and the other streamers has opened things up to different, more diverse kinds of stories, stories from more marginalized communities,” says Winger. “But I think in recent years we’ve also had a real change in the way we talk about racism, institutional racism, in Germany.”
After the success of Germany ’83 (2015), the German espionage series that Winger co-created with his wife Anne Winger and produced by German studio UFA Fiction, streamed for three seasons (as Germany ’86And Germany ’89) on Hulu in the US, Winger returned to Sam’s story. He and Ricketts set up the show as the first project for Big Window, a new label Winger founded at Fremantle company UFA Fiction for ambitious, internationally-focused series.
This time people were interested. The project eventually ended up with Disney, which used it as the very first German-language original. Winger says the studio, which has “diversity in its corporate DNA,” is a perfect fit Sam – A Saxon. The show itself was keen to be diverse, both in front of the camera – starring Afro-German actors Malick Bauer, Ricketts, Paula Essam and others – and behind it, with a writer’s room that included Austrian-Nigerian screenwriter Malina. Nwabuonwor (TNTs Para – We are king) and East German-born Afro-German actor and writer Toks Körner (Borga).
“It was important to get things right, not only with regard to the experience of being black in Germany, but also the experience of living in East Germany at the time,” Winger notes.
The result, in Sam – A Saxon, is different from almost everything that comes out of German TV. Part coming-of-age story, part crime thriller, part prison drama, the series changes tone and genre from episode to episode, held together by Bauer’s amazing performance – “he’s like the son I never had”, jokes Mellfire – and the arc of Sam’s trauma.
“Ultimately, I think it all comes down to losing my father, never knowing him, that left a hole, a hole I’ve spent my whole life trying to fill,” says Meffie. Only after years of therapy – inside and outside prison – and with the support of his wife and family, has he fully recovered, he says.
Seeing his life re-enacted and fictionalized on screen is a strange experience, Meffie admits, but he feels the series captures “the feeling, the emotional truth” of his life with all its creative freedom.
“And of course the money helped,” he laughs. “Thanks to the show, I paid off my debts. I never thought that would be possible.”
Samuel Meffire lives with his wife and their two daughters in Bonn, where he works as a writer and as a coach for public sector employees. Sam – A Saxon premieres April 26 on Hulu and Disney+.