Leon Schuster has long relied on a lesser than black body through which to ridicule the essence of blackness and fashion himself as a better than white Messiah, writes Tsepo Ya Rona Mamatu
In the past few weeks, the world has been agog with the surge of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a spirited campaign that advocates the fair and just treatment of black bodies.
Even though the campaign is not new, what is different this time are the concrete steps which different institutions have taken in acknowledging black pain and proposing remedies to combat the prejudice which black people continue to experience in almost every aspect of their lives.
In light of this, entertainment streaming service Showmax decided to remove a catalogue of Leon Schuster’s films from its library.
Unsurprisingly, this brave move by Showmax attracted much disdain on various social media platforms, with many lamenting the fact that Schuster was only a comedian, a court jester of sorts, using humour to force South Africans to laugh at themselves.
This could not be further from the truth because Schuster does not laugh with black people, he is laughing at blackness in the curious way black people are imagined and presented in his films, be it as Mr Bones or in Sweet ’n Short.
In many ways Schuster follows in the tradition of apartheid film maker Jamie Uys, who is best known for his The Gods Must Be Crazy films.
It was Uys who made the project of laughing at blackness a commercially viable enterprise, and Schuster seems content to assimilate and perfect his ancestry.
The modus operandi of these two film makers is to draw from a swathe of black stereotypes that are discombobulated by modernity.
Think, if you will, of a Jim Comes to Jo’burg character, often a black male who would be seen arriving at the doorstep of an imposing building in the city, marvelling as he drops his suitcase to the ground.
If the films which Uys made, such as The Condemned Are Happy and Dingaka, were to justify the apartheid project, Schuster takes it one step further by taming and infantilising his black characters, and in the process uses laughter as a weapon with which to recolonise.
A perfect example of this would be Mr Bones, undoubtedly one of the country’s highest-grossing films.
In the film, Schuster plays a sangoma of the fictitious Kuvuki tribe and is tasked with finding its long-lost heir.
Let us, for academic purposes, ignore the fact that the Kuvuki people are led by a white sangoma, a role so pivotal in black communities because it is the medium between the living and the dead, the last frontier between the sacred secrets of those who have since crossed over and those still alive.
Simply put, it is not an occult coincidence that Schuster is tasked with preserving the progeny of the Kuvuki and to ensure its wellbeing, arguably because the colonial project and apartheid perfectly distilled the myth of the white male as the saviour of blackness.
More importantly, Schuster is addicted to creating and spreading myths about the African continent and her people.
Take for example the language that is used in the film itself, which is a bastardisation of isiZulu, Sesotho and isiXhosa, resulting in an incomprehensible bout of clicks and expressions that are no different to Fanakalo, a language solely based on what white people hear when black people speak.
Apart from the patronising impulse that fuels the confidence to use Fanakalo in a film which had an international distribution, Schuster frames and traps the Kuvuki people in a nondescript mass of land surrounded by dangerous wildlife.
Those of us who grew up in the rural emaXhoseni in the Eastern Cape or the remote Nongoma fields in KwaZulu-Natal will attest to the fact that even though there could be dangerous wildlife in the area, it is a flick of fortune to come across any of it.
However, for the reason that Schuster creates his films for a white, international audience that derives its glee from a dark, virginal Africa which teems with wildlife and whose people speak in clicks, Schuster’s films further confirm the view that the West was justified in colonising the African continent because it saved it from itself and helped accelerate modernity.
It is this paternalistic attitude that the West harbours towards the African continent that Schuster seems content in retooling and using for his films in the name of laughter.
This is perfectly captured in the seminal Sweet ’n Short, which tells the story of how Schuster’s character battles to deal with the reality of a new South Africa.
When he is forced to go on the run, he is aided by Alfred Ntombela’s character, who deftly massages Schuster’s white anxieties and fears about being a minority in a black-led South Africa.
Even though it is easy to marvel and admire a narrative arc which suggests that white people and black people need to work together in the new South Africa, it displaces the fact that the new country Schuster imagines in his film is a broken, uncomfortable world that poses the question: Can blackness be trusted to govern?
Sweet ’n Short has a telling answer to that question – at the end of the film Schuster realises that the world he had witnessed, that of a new South Africa where black people were at the centre of the frame and not at the margins, was thankfully just a bad dream.
Schuster and his legion of fans are mistaken in simply dismissing his works as sites of innocent laughter, deliberately made to poke fun at ourselves.
Schuster revels in employing black caricatures to assert his white supremacist view that the African continent remains the antithesis of modernity.
In effect, he recreates latter-day curio shows which first emerged when the West believed Africa to be a tabula rasa, a dark continent that needed to be salvaged.
Mamatu runs Bhali Productions