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AMANDLA! A REVOLUTION IN FOUR PART HARMONY (director/writer: Lee Hirsch; cinematographers: Brand Jordaan/Ivan Leathers/ Clive Sacke; editor: Johanna Demetrakas; cast: Abdullah Ibrahim, Duma Ka Ndlovu, Sibongile Khumalo, Vusi Mahlasela, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Thandi Modise, Sifiso Ntuli, Sibusiso Nxumalo, Dolly Rathebe, Lindiwe Zulu, Jeremy Cronin; Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Sherry Simpson/Lee Hirsch; Artisan; 2002-South Africa/USA)

“The music is the thing to take away from this historical film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Lee Hirsch directs this sobering PBS type of documentary about the influence of music (freedom songs) during the black demonstrations in their 40 year struggle from 1948 on against the South African apartheid government. The film traces via a chronological history of the freedom struggle the way music was used to keep up one’s spirits in the fight for freedom and how it ennobled the blacks and helped them stick together. When not playing the pulsating rhythmic music, the filmmaker conducts a series of interviews with previously exiled activists and musicians and he also shows archival footage from the demonstrations. It’s a chance for those not familiar with these events to get a glimpse of those days and take in the richness of the soul music and the people who made it. It seems more like what television would do than film, and therefore I don’t think there’s much of an audience for this film despite the merits of the project and its fine craftsmanship. I found the interviews with the aging protest leaders and history lesson presented were hardly more than what you would expect from any documentary with a less than probing look at those days. But it did put a human face on the freedom fighters, and it was worthwhile to hear some of their experiences. Yet without more in-depth questioning, it seemed as if the filmmaker squandered an opportunity to take this subject further. There was nothing in this film to take away from the moral rightness of the protesters and their mostly non-violent struggle against such an abhorrent policy. Their protests filled the daily newspapers in the latter half of the 20th century, as they caught the favor of most of the world because of their just cause. The music is the thing to take away from this historical film.

“Amandla!” means “power,” and the power the majority blacks were talking about was in the “power of the people.” Not all the songs were docile, as some had threats of violence in them and certainly appealed to blacks who were getting restless with the slow progress of their struggle over the ensuing years. Verwoerd was the father of apartheid and the song dedicated to him entitled “Beware Verwoerd” had the warning in its refrain that ‘the black man is coming’. When the blacks were forced out of living in Sophiatown, a place they felt at home in, and into the government sponsored Meadowlands, which consisted of a string of shacks strung out in a line like railroad cars, they protested through song and some refused to move peacefully. “Madam Please” was a song that arose from the poor working conditions and wages of maids and other household workers. Since blacks couldn’t leave the country without a passport (the Pass Laws), which the white government rigidly enforced, this gave Nelson Mandela a chance to make his mark as a protest leader by saying blacks should refuse to carry a pass. This resulted in his arrest and imprisonment for 20 years after the Sharpville massacre of 1970 in which some 60 unarmed blacks were gunned down by white police after following Mandela, and many were shot in the back. In 1976 the protests got ugly with the uprising in Soweto. But throughout the protests, the musicians gave the people a chance to express their outrage and feelings. In one of their favorite early songs, there’s the refrain: ‘my only sin is that I’m black’.

South Africa is a changed country with the blacks now in charge of their government through a peaceful transfer of power and are experiencing many difficulties, especially economic ones. But apartheid has ended and the white domination of the country is over. The white owners of the rich diamond mines are still there, but many whites have fled as the landscape has changed for them. Hirsch shows one white poet (Cronin), who was jailed as a protester, lecturing black school children about his experiences in a Pretoria jail. He also shows a group of racially hostile Boers having a barbecue and mocking the animated gestures of the black singers.

REVIEWED ON 12/7/2002 GRADE: B –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”