A Revolution in Four Part
review by Dan
Lybarger, 17 January 2003
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
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.
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.
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"
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.
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.
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
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.
Duma Ka Ndlovu
PG-13 - Parents
Some material may
for children under 13.