"You couldn't make it up" is a too-oft-used phrase when it comes to "based on a true story" films and TV series. But if any tale deserves the "stranger than fiction" moniker, it's that of Samuel Meffire.
Meffire's life, the inspiration for the new Disney+ series "Sam: A Saxon," is, frankly, unbelievable.
Born just outside Leipzig in 1970, the son of a Cameroonian father and a German mother, Meffire became the first Black policeman in East Germany.
In the early 1990s, he became, for a short time, the literal poster boy for a new, tolerant and multicultural Germany, the face of a PR campaign designed to show a different side to the former GDR.
Poster boy turned fugitive
But after the rise came a dramatic fall. Frustrated with police bureaucracy and political corruption, Meffire quit the police and ended up switching sides.
By the end of the decade, he was a fugitive and wanted for a string of armed robberies. He went on the run, ending up in what was then Zaire — now the Democratic Republic of the Congo — where he got caught up in a civil war.
After being extradited back to Germany and convicted, Meffire spent seven years in prison.
While the Disney+ version takes some artistic license — changing names, combining certain events, inventing situations and figures to better fit a seven-part TV mini-series — the core, basic facts of Meffire's life drive the action.
Reflecting the fate of East German-born Black people
"I first heard of Sam's story years ago and I immediately thought it would make an incredible TV show," says Jörg Winger, producer and co-creator of "Sam: A Saxon."
"But back then, this was in 2006, every TV channel we pitched to gave us the same response: 'Personally, I love the story. But I don't think the [German] audience is ready for it.'"
What the TV executives meant, says Winger, is that German audiences wouldn't accept Samuel Meffire's reality: that of an East German-born Black man whose personal story shines a different light on their shared political history.
When the Berlin Wall fell, there were nearly 100,000 non-white migrant workers registered as living in East Germany, most from socialist so-called "brother states" including Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, and Mozambique.
Meffire's father, an engineering student from Cameroon, grew up with a "largely positive" view of Germany, says Meffire.
"The perception in the region of Cameroon where he was from was that the German colonial period, compared to the French rulers that came after, was a bit of a golden age."
Meffire never knew his father. He died the day he was born under mysterious circumstances.
In the Disney+ series, and in his memoir, "Me, a Saxon," co-written with German historian and playwright Lothar Kittstein, Meffire puts forward a theory, proposed by his mother, that his father was poisoned by officials who were trying to chemically castrate him.
Neo-Nazism worsened after fall of Berlin Wall
Life as a Black boy in East Germany wasn't easy, Meffire admits. But things got much much worse after the GDR collapsed as right-wing thugs and Neo-Nazis took advantage of the power vacuum.
"It's almost impossible for Westerners to imagine what it was like, but the Neo-Nazis were just marching in the streets of Dresden, hundreds of them,” says Meffire. "If they spotted a Black person they'd chase them, attack, and beat them."
In his book, Meffire, a big fan of fantasy fiction, calls these marauding hordes "orcs" and "vampires."
But, surprisingly, Meffire says the police corps, for him, was "a place of solidarity, of camaraderie ... I didn't personally experience any racism or hate. We were a brotherhood."
A story that goes beyond cliches
The Disney+ series, the streamer's first-ever German production, moves through multiple genres — political thriller, crime procedural, coming-of-age tale — as it tells Meffire's story.
The tonal shifts are held together by Malick Bauer's lead performance as Meffire, and by a mainly Black German cast, including co-creator/co-writer Tyron Ricketts, Nyamandi Adrian, Paula Essam, and others.
The diversity extends behind the scenes as well, with a writer's room that included East German-born Afro-German actor and writer Toks Körner and Austrian-Nigerian screenwriter Malina Nwabuonwor.
The result is something close to revolutionary for German TV: a mainstream series aimed at a broad audience that tells a complex story about Black Germans without falling into cliche or generalizations.
"We screened the film at the Saxon state government office in Berlin," said Winger. "The former state interior minister, Heinz Eggert, who had been Chancellor Helmut Kohl's right-hand man at the time, said it gave him a new view on the history he lived through himself."
"Sam: A Saxon" isn't Meffire's story as it actually happened, says the 52-year-old. But it captures "the feeling, the emotional truth" of his incredible life.
Meffire today lives with his wife and their two daughters in Bonn, where he works as a social worker, writer, and security contractor.
"Sam: A Saxon" is streaming on Disney+ worldwide, and on Hulu in the US.
Edited by: Stuart Braun