“Amandla” is a South African siblings saga built on the classic “one brother becomes a cop, one a thief” formula.
An unconventional setting gives the film a certain novelty — South Africa just before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and years after he was elected president and Apartheid was over. But writer-director Nerina De Jager’s film frustrates as it struggles and stumbles to add a racial subtext to hang an essentially Zulu story upon, and some of the performances don’t measure up to others.
The story opens with two little boys hunting birds, their jobs on an estate run by what we take to be pretty liberal if still quite patriarchal Boers. Little Impi (Thabiso Masoti) has just turned 11, and is the tougher sibling, the one who has to wring a wounded game bird’s neck. Nkosana (Bahle Mashinini) may be taller, but he’s younger and not as tough.
They work, help their parents and joke around about the music they overhear from the owners.
“You wanna know why they’re white? They all died listening to this music. They’re GHOSTS!”
But Mom has a warning about this “very important day for the whites,” Dingaan’s Day, a white nationalist South African holiday celebrating a victory over the Zulus. The boys should be on their guard, as the most virulent and violent racists might use it as an excuse to act-out.
On that day of all days, Impi helps his friend, Elizabeth (Jeanique Fourie) from the white landowner’s family learn to use a bow and arrow. She kisses him within the sight of local ruffians, and that sets off a chain of events that dooms the boys’ parents.
“Amandla,” which takes its title from the “Power to the People” slogan of anti-Apartheid activists, first goes a little wrong as the boys see their father’s dead body and flee, stopping just long enough to see their mother murdered. These boys don’t cry. They don’t react at all to what they’ve witnessed.
Years later, Impi (Lemogang Tsipa) has become a near legend as a “ghost,” a burglar who never gets caught. He’s kept himself and Nkosana alive and on the streets. But now the younger brother (Thabo Rametsi) is ready to become a policeman in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa, “to restore justice,” he says.
Impi may talk of returning to their native Kwazulu, but he’s got a girlfriend and a baby on the way in Soweto, so that’s where he moves. On the evening of his first day there, he’s kidnapped by a gang and blackmailed into working for Shaka (Israel Matsete-Zulu), trapped and forced to go along on their versions of breaking-and-entering, where murder and rape are commonplace.
At times, it seems as if De Jager (“The Greenwich Village Massacre”) has seen melodramatic thrillers that use this formula, but is too impatient to stick to what works. We get one brief entrance-day speech at the police academy where the force demands that all new recruits enforce the law “without prejudice” — for a change. We never really see evidence of Imbi as any sort of master thief whose skills are in demand.
That makes the film’s turn towards tragic melodrama ring hollow. Its efforts to tie the past to the present play as an afterthought.
“Amandla” has no emotional core. This potentially riveting drama about siblings and violence and a country going through one of the most astonishing political/racial transformations in history has barely a moment that moves or inspires. Too many of the performances lack much in the way of heart, either.
The idea was here, but the execution was pretty much botched. Perhaps Netflix should pay closer attention to the resumes in the many countries where it does business, as this sort of “bad filmmaker makes a not-all-it-could-be film” surprise happens over and over again, all over the Netflix world.
Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, profanity
Cast: Lemogang Tsipa, Thabo Rametsi, Thabiso Masoti,
Bahle Mashinini, Jeanique Fourie and Israel Matseke-Zulu
Credits: Scripted and directed by Nerina De Jager. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:46