Opens Fri March 28
In an age of entertainment and consumption, it's easy to forget that the simple human act of singing against injustice can be more than merely "authentic"; it can be authentically revolutionary. After seeing Amandla!, a staggeringly inspirational documentary about the unique role of music in the 40-plus-year struggle against apartheid in South Africa, this notion becomes indelible.
The documentary, whose title means "power," is constructed conventionally, with newsreel footage and talking-head interviews with South African musicians and activists (many of whom suffered exile, arrest, and torture for their efforts against institutionalized oppression). They tell the same story: When all other attempts to be heard failed, black citizens were left only with the power of music to resist the government. And though the resistance was nonviolent, the music was not; interviewees recall lines like "we will shoot you, we will kill you," and "we will kill you with our machine guns." Not all the lyrics were so blunt, but they shared the relentless conviction that change had to and would come. The message is clear: These are songs of freedom, not peace. And they prevailed.
The experience of viewing Amandla! consists of a complicated series of jolts to the consciousness. It's astonishing to see so much history encapsulated so effectively, to hear so many eloquent accounts of such inhuman misery, to be exposed to so much stirring music. But the biggest jolt is generated by a simple fact: For nearly half of the 20th century, the governing principle of a predominantly black nation was that black people were not entitled to the same social, legal, and human rights as a tiny minority of white people.
It's easy to sound pious when discussing such well-known history, but it's just as easy to let it go unspoken. Amandla! is a testament to the importance of remembering, and to the power of film to make the memory vivid and alive.