Perhaps the most incomprehensible image from Lee Hirsch's documentary Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony is that of the smiling faces seen throughout. Even under the oppressive rule of the National Party, responsible for making "official" the apartheid laws of segregation and humiliation that defined and defiled South Africa for decades, somehow that country's black inhabitants would not allow themselves to have their spirits and their songs crushed out of them. One gets the impression from Amandla! that, from dawn to dawn, the country resonated and reverberated with the echoes of songs--revolutionary anthems, of course, but also the deeply rooted and deeply moving hymns of a people who would raise their voices in pride and solidarity rather than cry out in despair and defeat. Imagine, if you can, a never-ending musical on every street corner, in every home, on every frontline of protest, in every battlefield.
That's how Amandla! (which means "power") plays--not just as the chronological document of a land suffering racism's longstanding rule in the guise of "pass books" and population registration acts and housing legislation, but as a musical document in which determined warriors fire off centuries' worth of melodies like bullets from an AK-47. As Robert Christgau once wrote, in a review of an album by South African immortal Miriam Makeba, they were people who took their uplift wherever they could find it--which meant everywhere, because nowhere was ever going to be safe enough till apartheid was banished from the land.
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Cinema has done a fine job of documenting the anti-apartheid movement, even if too often the spotlight shone brightest on the white man through whom the black man's story was being told; who didn't see Cry Freedom and wonder why Kevin Kline, not Denzel Washington, took top billing? Literature, too, has recorded the struggle with the historian's dispassion and the novelist's fury. But music, from the albums of Makeba and Hugh Masekela and Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens to such essential compilations as The Indestructible Beat of Soweto and its successors, made tangible the revolution for those living far from it. It caught in its tide artists from Peter Gabriel ("Biko," the instrumental "No More Apartheid") to the Specials ("Free Nelson Mandela") to Little Steven, who gathered the Artists Against Apartheid for the Sun City comp in the mid-'80s; by the end of that decade, Ladysmith Black Mambazo was on Warner Bros. Records, and a major label was funding the revolution from the outside in. Middle America knew about South Africa, even if it was under the pretense of digging "world music" during an ethno-musical field trip to a Paul Simon record.
Hirsch begins his movie by digging up the past, quite (and quite horribly) literally: The remains of Vuyisili Mini, a man whose songs were his swords, are being hauled out of a pauper's grave and transferred to a plastic bag. For the next hour and a half, Mini's tale--a man calls out his oppressors, is jailed for his sin of singing out and finally denies his executioners their pleasure by singing on his way to the gallows--is interwoven with the stories of apartheid's rise and those who would eventually bring about its downfall in the 1990s, when Nelson Mandela (about whom dozens of songs were written by artists worldwide) was released from prison to become the country's president in '94.
Not a minute of the film rolls by without someone breaking into song, whether it's to recall Mini's "Watch out Verwoerd," which called out by name the South African president who tightened apartheid's grip in '48, or to proclaim the mighty power of the toyi-toyi, when protesters would stomp and shout in front of cops hiding behind riot gear and challenge them to roll over (or shoot through) their picket lines. No one interviewed speaks for too long without slipping into song, without recalling how they would take old songs and remove the word "Bible" to make room for the word "gun," or mentioning some great singer-songwriter sent into exile when the National Party took power. And none of those interviewed by Hirsch and producer Sherry Simpson (who have been making this film for more than a decade) is given a single identifier; every singer or songwriter is also referred to as "activist" or "soldier."
The movie tells a sordid history, using archival footage but relying mostly on new interviews with those who were shoved into the "homeland" ghettos in the '50s, witnessed the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 (69 dead, 170 wounded when the citizens refused to carry their government-mandated passes), or fought with the Spear of the Nation (better known simply as the MK) and the African National Congress' guerrilla outfits. Particularly painful and pointed is the story told by Thandie Modise, who was near death and pregnant in prison, but refused to drown herself in a toilet bowl and sang to remember she was still breathing. Today, she is a member of South Africa's Parliament, the would-be suicide who became a survivor of hell, with but a song to keep her alive--an entire country, seen through the eyes and heard through the heart of this one woman.