Movie Review: Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony
By Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Lee Hirsch's "Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony" is a great documentary that makes your heart leap with joy. A musical and political record of more than a half-century of South African history, it's the story of a relatively peaceful revolution wrought against all the weapons of the state by suffering, mass protest and music. And it's told with such sadness and exaltation, such mastery of image and sound, that watching it makes you feel renewed and hopeful.
In a world often drenched in bloodshed and hatred, "Amandla!" makes the point, irresistibly, that love and music can be as all-conquering in certain battles as fear and weaponry, that ideals can win a nation as much as bombs. That may seem a dubious, simplistic point, but "Amandla!" drives it home with ecstatic whoops of rhythm and melody. Like Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," it's an intensely political documentary that entertains as much as it instructs, drenching the audience in a colorful torrent of historical images and infectious freedom song: the music of artists like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim and Vuyisile Mini that acted as the soul and anthems of a nation torn apart.
For decades, these songs Mini's impudent "Beware, Verwoerd!," Strike Vilakazi's lilting "Meadowlands," the mocking communal "Toyi-Toyi Chant" and finally the great churning climax of Masekela's "Mandela" expressed the inner feelings and mood of the South African black populace. They were cries of defiance against the racially divisive apartheid policies instituted by the all-white National Party of Hendrik Verwoerd in the late '40s and early '50s. Hirsch's documentary is a definitive record of those songs and their context, and a portrait of the devastating effects of apartheid (the disenfranchisement and segregation of South Africa's black communities) on the nation, blacks and whites alike.
Over the years, apartheid created a state armed against itself and thrust protesters such as Mandela into jail and Masekela and Makeba into exile. "Amandla!" (which means "Power!" as in "power to the people") shows us those events with thoroughness and high clarity, but it never feels like a dry historical record or a piece of agitprop. Hirsch carries us from 1948 to the present, through the institution of apartheid, the first clashes in the '50s, the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 (69 killed by police during a demonstration), the incarceration of figures like Mandela and Mini, the 1976 Soweto massacre (575 dead), the economic struggles of the '80s (when the world began to boycott South Africa's industries), and finally the voluntary dismantling of apartheid and the re-enfranchisement of the black populace by the National Party's last president, F.W. de Klerk, who was succeeded in the 1994 elections by Mandela.
Hirsch's point, reinforced constantly by his interviewees and by the songs themselves, is that music was an integral part of the South African revolution. It was a rebellion fought and won without superior firepower or force of arms, but the constant pressure of peaceful (and not so peaceful) protest and the final disapproval of the outside world, swayed by the protestors' example. The world became aware of South Africa's problems first through the music of trumpeter Masekela and singer Makeba, brought to U.S. stages and showcased by Harry Belafonte in his early Carnegie Hall concerts. Here, past 60 and 70, the two retain their youthful cheerfulness and fire.
So does the movie. The miracle is that first-time director Hirsch, who began this project back in 1992 while still in his teens and completed it in 2001, was able to realize it with such a mix of fiery energy and calm contemplation, over nearly a decade of production and editing. Yet his mediating hand never lies heavy. "Amandla!" has the pulse and beat of life.
The movie is a true labor of love, but it's not, in any way, awkward or unprofessional. Even though this is Hirsch's first feature, it has a highly professional sheen and an intoxicating rhythm and flow. Hirsch must have grown hugely as a filmmaker while he made it, but the seams don't show. Incredibly, this mix of archival footage and new material seems all of a piece, full of color, lyricism and movement, throbbing with a visual energy that mirrors the soaring melodies and driving trip-hammer beat.
Like the songs themselves, the movie balances sadness and anger with a wry, resilient humor. How can you help but grin a bit at Verwoerd's absurd, smiling explanation that his apartheid is a policy of "good neighborliness"? Or help but flinch at the macabre reminiscences of prison guards and prisoners alike, recalling both the teeming jails, the gallows and the music that filled the courtyards and cell blocks?
South Africa may have different problems or tragedies today, but the music, for all those magical beats, still carries us away. We see and hear scenes of riot and death, hope and worship, and, at the end, in a concert scene that sums up the film's unquenchable spirit, we watch Mandela, wreathed in an impish smile, gently boogie to the song Masekela wrote for him, while thousands dance and cheer. At that moment and many others, "Amandla!" soars.
"Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony"
Directed by Lee Hirsch; photographed by Cliva Sacke, Ivan Leathers, Brand Jordaan; edited by Johanna Demetrakas; sound by Stuart Deutsch; sound design by Gary Rydstrom; music by Vuyisile Mini, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, others; produced by Hirsch, Sherry Simpson. An Artisan release; opens Friday, Feb. 28. Running time: 1:43. No MPAA rating. Family. Parents cautioned for intense scenes and descriptions of violence and oppression.