During South Africa's black apartheid days, music played an important role in the struggle of the nation's black majority. Interviews with composers and performers reveal the origins and meanings of songs and the changing nature of the music during critical points in the history of the resistance movement.
Review by Louise Keller:
A stirring documentary about the role music has played in South Africa's struggle against apartheid, Amandla! takes a candid look through the years at its relevance and how it forms an integral part in the communication and expression of its people. Just as rap artists tell their stories through music, the black South African people use music as naturally as speech. Born in New York, director Lee Hirsch became interested in the anti-apartheid movement during his school days, when an exiled black South African taught him freedom songs and told him stories of oppression under apartheid. Nine years in the making with over 200 hours of material, including original and archive footage, Amandla! begins and ends at the grave site of an unsung hero, songwriter and activist Vuyisile Mini, who was executed and buried in the Pauper's Cemetery.
The word 'Amandla' means 'power to the people', and jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim comments at the end of the film, that this is the first revolution ever to be carried out in 'four part harmony', implying that music is fundamental to the struggle. We meet exiled musicians and singers like trumpeter Hugh Masekela, songwriter Vusi Mahlasela, singers Sibongile Khumalo and Miriam Makeba who each talk about their experiences and recollections.
It is impossible not to be affected by former political prisoner and current Parliament member Thandi Modise, who whispers her tragic story. Five months pregnant when imprisoned, Modise was under interrogation when her waters broke and in despair, when left alone in her cell, she contemplated drowning herself in the toilet bowl. But when she felt her baby kicking, she too wanted to fight, and began to sing - until her baby was born.
Also disturbing is the interview with the warden on death row, a white South African, who talks about how much he liked working there, getting a kick out of the power he held. Subversive songs, questioning songs, songs that recall events, songs about struggle, victory and freedom - we hear them all as we glimpse a taste of history from the 40s to the 90s, culminating in the glorious moment when Nelson Mandela was released and made the first democratically elected president. As the remains of Vuyisile Mini are reburied in 1998 with the honour due, the people sing 'This hero is not dead, he is only sleeping.' With its visceral music pounding in our hearts, Amandla! is an informative and inspiring story about the courage of a unique nation, whose passion resonates with history.
The Q & A (with Lee Hirsch, producer Sherry Simpson and singer Vusi Mahlasela) is spontaneous and feels somewhat like a Popcorn Taxi session), and there's a commentary with producer and director. But the DVD highlight for me is a 12 minute live musical segment of Vusi singing at Joe's Pub, in which every note explodes with emotion.
Published: May 27, 2004
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AMANDLA!: DVD (PG)
(South Africa / USA)
CAST: Documentary with appearances by Walter Cronkite, F.W. de Klerk, Abdullah Ibrahim, Jesse Jackson, Duma Ka Ndlovu, Ronnie Kasrils, Sibongile Khumalo, Vusi Mahlasela, Miriam Makeba, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela
DIRECTOR: Lee Hirsch
SCRIPT: Lee Hirsch
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
PRESENTATION: Widescreen 16: 9
SPECIAL FEATURES: Director and producer commentary; Q & A with director, producer and Vusi Mahlesela; Vusi at Joe's Pub; production notes; trailer
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Madman Entertainment/AV Channel
DVD RELEASE: April 28, 2004