A dreamy South African parable of a bloody past coming back to haunt the present, “Jewel” never actually takes us into the infamous Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. This Around the World with Netflix story is about the ripples of pain that pass through history, a great wrong impacting generations, reopening wounds and spreading trauma.
A group of mostly-white tourists take in the town and its memorial decades after it happened. One woman, Tyra (Michelle Bote) seems most keenly interested in Sharpeville, taking scores of photos but generally dissatisfied with the depth — or lack of it — of the history related by their tour guide.
She sees women dressed in white praying at the spot where 69 peaceful protesters were gunned down by the Apartheid police state’s uniformed goons, and is struck by one in particular. This vision of a woman, Siya (Nqobile “Nunu” Khumalo), simply must let her take her picture. She simply must become Tyra’s personal guide to the river, the town and the event she wants to experience.
Tyra’s in love…or some sort of white privilege lust.
Siya takes care of her diabetic grandmother (Connie Chiume of “Black Panther”) and tries to give the fiftysomething white woman the brush off. She has a man, after all. And Tshepo (Senzo Radibe) is a politically-aware man-friend with benefits. He isn’t going to like the white woman’s attentions. And when he hears why she’s come — her father used to be a Sharpeville cop and was stationed there when the massacre occurred — he is further outraged by this “white woman shooting black people…with her camera.”
The dreamy part of director and co-writer Adze Ugah’s film is the talk of how the past impacted the present, the lives cut-short, the grandmother Tshepo grew up without. Siya’s grandmother frets over what happened over half a century ago (the film’s “present” is uncertain) and what it might be doing to the younger generations.
And we fret over the movie’s shortcuts, the ways it artfully avoids taking Tyra into the terror she wants to learn about and instead focuses on an unlikely love triangle in the present, which it also shortchanges.
The acting is rather better than the script they’re working with, with Khumalo, Chiume and Radebe standing out.
I was hoping for something like “Sankofa.” But this film, which never really grapples with the Sharpeville Massacre history or the invented love story, contents itself with immersing characters in the river for their epiphanies and encounters with fate.
“Jewel” never amounts to more than a lovely but abbreviated, symbolic failure, a movie with ambition which loses its nerve in the end, and in the middle, too.
Rating: TV-MA, violence, sex, profanity
Cast: Nqobile “Nunu” Khumalo, Michelle Botes, Connie Chiume, Senzo and Senzo Radebe
Credits: Directed by Adze Ugah, scripted by Glenrose Ndlovu and Adze Ugah A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:22