Amandla!
A Revolution in Four Part Harmony
review by Dan Lybarger, 17 January 2003

If you are looking for a distant, dispassionate recounting of life in South Africa under Apartheid, it would be wise to avoid Lee Hirsch's Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony. One of the great strengths of the film is that it makes the struggle to topple white minority rule deeply personal and passionate. Even the commentators in the film who supported the South African government's policy from 1948 to 1993 of denying blacks basic rights and placing them into forced labor describe their activities in a first-hand and almost gut-wrenching manner.

The American filmmaker Hirsch accomplishes this feat by achieving a remarkable intimacy with his interviewees and by concentrating on the surprisingly important role of music in the fall of Apartheid.

According to Hirsch and the musicians and the political leaders he interviews, music was able to galvanize the anti-Apartheid movement in a way that that no other medium could. Blacks were often denied education, and journalism served the interests of the white establishment. Protest songs were able to reach people that protest leaflets or conventional media could not. Music conveyed ideas that couldn't be expressed any other way. Many times the lyrics bluntly stated what couldn't be said in a speech, and the tunes often had coded lyrics. This was especially true because key leaders like Nelson Mandela and others were in jail, killed or exiled. At one point, merely mentioning Mandela's name could cause trouble.

Nonetheless, musicians also suffered for speaking out. Amandla! is framed around the execution of protest composer Vuyisile Mini. In the film, the government moves his body from a pauper's grave nearly forty years after his death to place his remains in a more dignified setting. Some of the most moving testimony in the flick comes from musicians like trumpeter Hugh Masekela and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, who lived in exile for decades. Singing tunes by Miriam Makeba (another exile) in public could get the "offender" arrested.

With all the suffering that occurred, it's remarkable that both Amandla! and its music are vibrant and rousing. Many of the tunes like Madame Please are like dirges, but much of the music is surprisingly upbeat, as if the notes themselves offered hope. The content and style of the music is also remarkably diverse. Some ditties are heavenly choral numbers, whereas Ibrahim's music is based in jazz. American-style pop and traditional percussion music also played a role in the movement. In fact, some of the cheeriest, catchiest songs have the most militant words. 

The militancy gets disturbing, but the most shocking moments in Amandla! come from propaganda film excerpts for the white government and from recollections of the people who enforced its policies. One particularly appalling clip from the late 1950s extols the virtues of passbooks, which the government required blacks to carry in order to travel in the country. As a white housewife examines her servant's records, the narrator cheerily announces, "Nothing missing except one tooth." Later in the film, a former executioner named Johan Steinberg describes his old occupation with a glum, yet still chilling, detachment. A group of former riot police are eerily amusing when they recall that certain tunes seemed to incite greater hostilities.

Hirsch, who cut his teeth making South African music videos, shoots all of his talking head segments with vivid colors. Although the camera is often a bit overly mobile, there is a contagious visual energy that runs throughout Amandla! that fits the music and the themes beautifully. The title comes from the Xhosa word for "power."  Hugh Masekela recalls how fellow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie said he wished he could join the anti-Apartheid revolution because people were constantly singing and dancing. After watching Amandla!, Gillespie's statement seems like much more than idle praise.


Click here to read the interview

Directed by:
Lee Hirsch

Starring:
Abdullah Ibrahim
Duma Ka Ndlovu
Sibongile Khumalo
Vusi Mahlasela
Miriam Makeba
Hugh Masekela
Thandi Modise
Sifiso Ntuli
Sibusiso Nxumalo
Dolly Rathebe
Lindiwe Zulu

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate
for children under 13.

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