The Passion of Henry Nxumalo

There's a film I've been meaning to critic for some time but didn't have the time to watch, except for the trailer which I always get sent to me by my friends in those higher places.

It's the largely foreign-funded (except for IDC) but locally produced local story of DRUM, especially of Henry Nxumalo and in a small way Can Themba, Jim Bailey and the horde of the 1950's journalists and writers. It is the story of the vibrancy of Sophiatown and the reason why it had to give way for Triomf.

Now, I've never really had time to watch the film until recently. Given that it's about wordsmiths I had the privilege of watching it in the company of journalists and thus my criticism had the misfortune of being informed. Forget that they are usually a mad bunch, on this day they were well-behaved.

First, I must congratulate Zola Maseko (director) for a good story that was unfortunately badly told because the money behind it set the agenda of how it was going to be told.

That Nxumalo couldn't utter a single sentence in an indigenous language even when enraged and frustrated, not even in Tsotsitaal is grossly unbelievable. We'll forgive his foreign accent since those are politics for another post.

Let it be granted that Taye Diggs is very talented as seen in How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Best Man, but not when he portrays a legendary South African icon like Nxumalo. Here we expect authenticity or near-perfection.

Moshidi Motshegwa's portrayal of Nxumalo's long-suffering wife is impressive. She really looked abused without being battered. However their lack of on-screen chemistry is disturbing, especially when one picks strong vibes between Diggs and Bonnie Henna who plays his songstress concubine.

The line that stood out for me on the film, especially going into Valentine's Day was when their liaison was ending and she passively said to him, "you gonna miss it you know". That was classic, even for a non-romantic like me.

Before this one there is another killer moment, after Nxumalo had witnessed a street brawl where another man (played by Israel Makoe) was butchered and he tells his concubine over pillowtalk how barbaric and heroic the knife-fight looked and she says there's nothing heroic about people killing one another.

For worse, and to a larger extent the film mellows down the exploits of Nxumalo in his quest to unearth the truth is his journalistic endeavours. His painful sacrifices are melodramaticed and the activism of his actions is allowed to drown under Hollywood hoopla. The roles of DRUM editor Jim Bailey and photographer Jurgen are intelligently explored though.
Thembinkosi Dlamini comes across as Zola the musician and nothing more. He doesn't get into the role he was given and ditch the Zola Seven tag. One doubts if he researched his gangsta role, given the ghetto -brut with which he approached it. Those 'Americans' in Valiants and Floursheim shoes were suave, not rugged.

Overall the film is not that bad even though any filmmaker who successfully relegates Nelson Mandela to a sidebar without anyone missing his politics as Maseko did should be applauded.

Maseko was brave to take a chapter of Sophiatown history and interpret it on film knowing too damn well that he'll be indebted to history. Such indebtness is evident when he interrogates the last days of Sophiatown. It's raw unnerving politics.

One of the criticisms of Maseko's direction of DRUM was the accuracy of his portrayal of some of the characters in the story like Themba, Blake Modisane etc. Some historians allege that Todd Matshikiza was central in the making of Nxumalo than the screenplay acknowledges. Some wonder why Themba's life outside of his liason with a white woman and once in a classroom is not explored. There are also those who say the 'we live fast, die young and leave a beatiful corpse' mantra was never part of the Sophiatown boozing culture but a 1950's United States hippy self-defeatist adage, a la James Dean.

Okay, I didn't watch the whole flick because it got too predictable and boring, especially after Nxumalo went domestic, Themba's drinking too exaggerated and the police too exposed. My verdict' THREE FAT LIPS, which means 'GO RENT THE DVD', don't buy.

* This review is dedicated to the late Dumisane Dlamini

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