As South Africa is seeking a still uncertain future, it is not a coincidence if a black director has chosen to concentrate on Sophiatown of the 50s. It is in this suburb of Johannesburg that after World War Two South Africa sought a new being, among an extraordinary artistic proliferation where not only genres were intermingling, combining the traditional and the modern to define new possibilities, but also men, black and white side by side as the country was sinking in the shadows of apartheid. In February 1955, 80 trucks and 2000 armed policemen started to evict the inhabitants, up to 1960, where all Sophiatown diversity and innovation had been dispelled, especially far away from there in a soulless township with a misleading name: Meadowlands. A posh white neighborhood that replaced it and this exodus remained the symbol of a policy that uprooted 3.5 millions of people. As apartheid was politically triumphing, Sophiatown’s inhabitants were wearing American clothing, listening to US records, and worshiped Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Richard Widmark. They played Ellington or Count Basie who carried them to other planets but also because of their African accents. If Sophiatown was influenced by Harlem, it was because it had drawn in its African sources since the Black Renaissance in the 20s. The magazine Drum wove the net of a cosmopolitan and very urban community. Young black columnists learnt their trade there, like Bloke Modisane, Can Themba, Nat Kakasa, Lewis Nkosi, Todd Matshikiza, Es’kia Mphalele, Don Mattera or Henry Nxumalo on whom Zola Maseko’s film focuses. They all could have been the main character but Nxumalo corresponded particularly well: his thirst for life that took precedence over a gradual political awakening and his tragic destiny pretty much illustrates what Sopiatown was. In following him step by step, Maseko represents a happy and chauvinist atmosphere but also the dreadful stalemate which the country was about to reach, killing or forcing to exile its best elements. Instead of telling black militants’ struggle, this son of exiled ANC militants prefers to focus on the journalist who enjoyed life before talking politics, as the Harlem writers of the 20s refrained from following Marcus Garvey to the letter. When he meets the serious Mandela, you can feel he was somewhere else despite all the admiration he had for the political man’s commitment. Nevertheless, Nxumalo risks his life in becoming an investigative journalist like Günther Walraff, sharing the reality of those he wanted to depict the condition of: the farm workers regarded as slaves or the prisoners. As it is still the case today, it is white people who dominate. In Sophiatown of the 50s, actors, dancers, and musicians were black whereas producers, directors, impresarios, publishers, or editors were white. Drum was no exception: it was written by black journalists but managed by white people. And if Nxumalo enjoys a certain equality with his coreligionist white photographer, he is the one who takes all the flack and gets stuck with the difficult task of convincing his editor to edit his papers on the investigation.
It is all this that Drum shows us and it is fascinating because it does not smooth over the paradoxes. Sophiatown sheds light on the current South African renaissance and probably beyond on all the corners in the world where culturally different groups try to live together. How excellent it could have been if the image was less polished and the general aesthetic of the film a bit less anchored in the sepia mood of sophisticated sets that take us more into a film of fine-cut historical reconstitution than into a true intimacy with the topic! The energy of the direction and the multiplicity of the themes addressed struggle to burst through the shiny surface in which the film is imprisoned, reinforced by the aesthetical references to American film noir to give a 50s touch and maintain the suspense. Taye Diggs, the American actor imposed by the coproduction, often overplays an engaging but always detached Nxumalo. His smile and his pep are not enough to give his character the necessary body to conquer us. Fortunately, the other actors restore this evasive humanity, Moshidi Motshegwa in particular, who plays with intensity Nxumalo’s wife, or Jason Flemyng who plays a very convincing Drum editor. And of course, the subject is rich and existing, topical and edifying. When the crane lifts the camera to emphasize the lyricism of the final tribute that everybody agrees to pay to the committed journalist, a last sacred union before the exile, we remain frustrated not to be able to fully share, were it only in a movie theater chair, the emotion of an entire people.
Translated by Sutarni Riesenmey///Article N° : 6890