Director: Mandla Dube
Starring: Thabo Rametsi, Thabo Malema, Welile Nzuza, Jafta Mamabolo, Pearl Thusi, Gcina Mhlope
I cried at least half a dozen times during the premiere screening at the Durban International Film Festival of Kalushi, Mandla Dube’s biopic of freedom fighter Solomon Mahlangu.
Okay, maybe more like a dozen times. I cried my white tears in that dark cinema, and I urge you, dear whites, to go along when the film opens on circuit in September and cry yours too.
The rest of you, just go and see it, unless you are triggered by horrific violence meted out on the black body, in which case do not go to see this film, just support it in spirit.
The question that lingers is a very small one, but also very big: how is it possible that in my 45 years I have never seen a scene in a commercial narrative feature set in an Umkhonto we Sizwe training camp where Oliver Tambo addresses freedom fighters over a secret radio broadcast?
I have never actually seen believable depictions of life and love in the camps. Yet there have been countless epic apartheid-era films by white directors.
Don’t get me wrong, Kalushi is flawed in many places, but it is a hugely important film. Finally we are able to watch a story about the armed struggle through the eyes of a black film maker – and one in which proper money has been spent to bring the story to life.
Focusing on a Mamelodi boy (Thabo Rametsi) dispossessed of both his land and his father, in love with a woke young girl (Pearl Thusi) and supporting his domestic worker mother (a brilliant and convincing outing by Gcina Mhlope), Kalushi is humanised in the script.
He is torn between going off to support his family by hawking fruit and vegetables and joining his friends and frenemies at the march in Soweto on June 16 1976. He skips Soweto but is brutally beaten and urinated on by the police for riding the trains illegally.
It is a turning point in his life and Mahlangu decides to join his comrades (excellently played by Thabo Malema, Welile Nzuza and Jafta Mamabolo) in crossing the border to Mozambique, where they wait out the rains and write letters to the ANC who eventually come to pick up the cadres to train them in Angola to be soldiers before dispatching them back to South Africa with weapons.
The botched operation that is the result of an unstable comrade but will cost him his life anyway throws his story into sharp focus – that the apartheid forces will go to the lengths they did to abuse the law to squash, torture and execute even the smallest threat of a black man with weapons.
The very real and hideously brutal violence Mahlangu met is shown without flinching. But the audience sure as hell does flinch.
We know the story, but we have never seen it in a big-budget commercial film. Yes, Kalushi is uneven in places, yes it’s very commercial in a Hollywood way, yes Rashid Lanie’s very good score is way sappy at times, yes Thusi is too old for her role and Rametsi a bit Model C, yes the MK camps are a bit romanticised.
But frankly, so what? If a narrative connects the way Kalushi does, if it restores dignity to black life and reversions the narratives of history we are taught, then it negates these petty critical concerns.
The cinematography is brilliant, shot by Tommy Maddox-Shaw (Straight Outta Compton), the universe is beautifully realised, the research is thorough, and there are performances that will make you reach for your tissues – including scenes from Thusi.
And the fantastical scenes of June 16 transposed to a township back yard are nothing short of genius. Kalushi is the struggle film we have been waiting for even though we thought we had lost our appetite for apartheid atrocities on screen.
I urge you to go and see it if you are in Durban or when it opens in cinemas across the country. You will want to show it to your children one day too.
- Kalushi screens on June 23 at the Luthuli Museum at 1pm and at the Musgrave cinema on June 25 at 9pm.