Conflicting loyalties beset Obam (Sidney Poitier), an educated and idealistic African trade union leader and member of a colonial legislative council. He has been elected by a labour vote and feels that he must win freedom for his followers. But by instinct, he knows that progress must be made slowly.
Eartha Kitt (in her film debut) plays Obam’s French-born wife, Renee, with gentleness and dignity.
Obam’s brother, Kanda (Clifton Macklin) is a hothead who prefers violence to the slower peaceful methods. In terrorising white colonists, Kanda and his sympathisers use the symbol of a hawk, which is the meaning of Obam’s name in the native language.
On the side of non-violence are native pastor Amugu (Juano Hernandez) and Bruce Craig (John McIntire), an American missionary newly arrived with his wife from China.
White hothead Steve Gregory (Patrick Allen) believes that Obam is the real terrorist leader and has him expelled from their Christian church.
Obam gets carried away by his zeal for freedom and almost falls in with Kanda’s plan to ambush and attack a plantation. But when Craig relates his experience in China to Obam (by means of a flashback sequence), Obam realises that he has misjudged the missionary.
Craig is killed during the ensuing terrorist attack, and Obam is arrested.
At Obam’s trial, Kanda’s admission frees Obam and the action slows with Obam’s speech admitting his own wrong in having failed to take the Christian approach toward winning freedom.
Ultimately, the film could not have a strong conclusion because the problems it considers had not yet been solved. At best, The Mark of the Hawk was an affirmation of faith and hope.
The heavy-handed Christian propaganda of the film is unsurprising given it was conceived, financed and written by ministers and church leaders. The executive producer, the Rev. W. Burton Martin, a Presbyterian clergyman and former missionary, supervised filming on location in Nigeria throughout 1956 and 1957.