Is Johannesburg the New Hollywood?

GangstersParadise4-1023x767On June 11th, 2010, there will be two big premieres coming out of South Africa. One is the much anticipated 19th FIFA World Cup, the first time the continent of Africa will play  host to the world’s most popular sports tournament. The other is the U.S. premiere of the film Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema.

Clearly, the World Cup is a tad more significant than a movie opening, but both are representative of a larger global shift: the emergence of South Africa as an international cultural force—especially when it comes to cinema. From the success of a great film like District 9, to the obligatory Hollywood initiation of a Clint Eastwood-helmed drama (Invictus), it’s clear that the South Africa is tossing its hat in with the Western-dominated entertainment industry.

Is it any wonder, then, that their films are reflective of this cultural transcendence? District 9, for example, is not a provincial movie; it’s in direct conversation with the great alien invasions of Hollywood, from Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds to Independence Day. It pays its homage to tradition, while using the alien genre for its own purposes at the same time. And this is not simply a Tarantino-esque play of mash-ups; it’s a way to communicate.

Ralph Ziman’s Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema, which I got a chance to see this Friday at the USC Albert and Dana Broccoli Theatre, is no different (except maybe in budget and heaviness of hand, which I’ll get to later). Based loosely on a true story, it’s about the rise of slumlord Lucky Kunene, who starts off stealing cars in the small South African village of Soweto, but eventually moves to Johannesburg, where he enacts a brilliant plan to take over a series of high-rise buildings in the ghetto of the city, providing a deadly though lucrative buffer between the properties’ white landlords and black tenants. Along the way, he develops a relationship with a white woman from the suburbs, picks a fight with a drug kingpin, and becomes a kind-of slumlord Robin Hood.

The film’s South-meets-West dialectic is evident even in the title. When it was released in South Africa two years ago, it was just called Jerusalema, a reference to a well-known regional hymnal. The producers of the movie, however, felt the title needed an extra kick to be able to sell in America. So they added the preamble of “Gangster’s Paradise,” an obvious allusion to the 1995 Coolio song (though in actuality, may refer to the change in the Johannesburg motor license plate prefix post-Apartheid to “GP,” which stands for Gaunteng Province). Director Ralph Ziman, in a Q&A session after the screening, said he was okay with the change in title if it meant more people would see the film. And to my eye, this same cultural compromise was central to his entire cinematic creation.

Narrative-wise, for instance, the movie was yet another re-telling of the all-to-familiar gangster story—the rise and fall of a sympathetic crime boss. But the details of this particular tale are entirely fresh. The character of Kunene is someone you want to get to know better and better (especially in the hands of the actors Jafta Mamabolo and Rapulana Seiphemo, who respectively play the young and old versions of him), and the politics of how he takes over the high-rises are fascinating. Visually, too, it was photogrpahed in the overused documentary style made popular with films like City of God, and even District 9. Yet the gritty realism of the setting (they shot in one of the world’s most dangerous slums) was undeniable. And musically, the composer (who was present at the screening) certainly borrowed from the rhythm-heavy soundtracks of modern-day thrillers, while still seamlessly inserting never-before-heard, African chants and beats into the background of the mix.

According to actor Jafta Mamabolo—also present at the screening and Q&A— these cultural interweavings in Jerusalema have helped it to become a genuine, South African cult hit. Whether or not this proves to be true for American audiences, however, is another issue. Because while such narrative and aethetic borrowings may help to bridge gap between worlds, there is such a thing as overdoing it. Cheesy voice-over dialogue like “In the beginning…,” unnecessary chase scenes, predictable book-ends, and romantic sub-plots within the movie often cross the border into cliché. And I found myself, after the highly informative Q&A, wishing Ziman had let go of some of these Hollywood trappings, and stuck more closely to the real events that inspired him in the first place.

Regardless, the film is most definitely worth seeing, if for no other reason than to witness yet another step in the maturation process of a fast-growing industry. If you see it on opening night though, just make sure to not to miss the first game of the World Cup: South Africa vs. Mexico. My bet’s on the underdog.

Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema opens in select theaters on June 11th. For more information, please visit www.gangstersparadisejerusalema.com.

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