If you’ve never watched Nelson Mandela dance, then you should know that he does a modified Locomotion, pumping his elbows like pistons to the immense, loving amusement of his people. They see his dancing is a little stiff, and they enjoy it all the more for knowing the reasons: advanced age, aristocratic bearing and many years of residence in a place that was bad for the joints. These factors may constrain Mandela’s style, but they can’t hamper his pleasure in the dance, or his supporters’ joy at seeing him go–a joy that’s crucial to Lee Hirsch’s rousing documentary Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony.
Of course, misery also plays its role in the story. Amandla! recounts half a century of struggle against apartheid, as experienced and enacted through music. Pop songs, anthems, folk tunes, jazz compositions, cabaret numbers, street chants: As Hirsch shows, these were more than expressions of resistance. They were often its means as well, from the time of the first imposition of apartheid (a policy best understood as “good neighborliness,” according to newsreel footage of Hendrik Verwoerd) up through the founding of a democratic South Africa. Cries of exultation were sometimes heard in this story–as when Mandela danced–but so, too, were cries, plain and simple.
Hirsch opens this subject with the opening of a grave. His film begins with footage shot in the 1990s in a paupers’ cemetery, where family and friends took advantage of their newly won freedom by digging up the remains of Vuyisile Mini. The man whose skull you see being solemnly lifted from the dirt was hanged for his activism in the 1950s. Now his middle-aged children, who had never really known their father, are going to provide the decent burial that Verwoerd’s regime denied him.
But who was Mini, to have earned a hanging? He was, among other accomplishments, a singer-songwriter, famous for his bass voice and a cheerful, bouncy tune called “Look Out, Verwoerd! The Black Man Is Coming!” The English translation, though approximate, tells you more of the song’s substance than was understood by the average white South African. As Hirsch cuts among period footage, contemporary talking-head interviews and scenes of various people performing the song, you hear one witness remark on how white people loved those pretty sounds.
Let’s say that Mini’s tune is the first motif the film calls up from the grave of apartheid. Let’s also say that this music expands as it rises, adding voices and tone colors and harmonic complications, shifting its rhythm with the unfolding of events: forced relocations, passbook laws, the Sharpeville massacre, the Soweto uprising. Although Hirsch presents this history using television methods–Amandla! was produced, in part, by HBO/Cinemax–his touch is so lively, his feeling for the subject so deep, that the sounds surge right past the documentary conventions. Witnesses such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim testify to periods of despair and years in exile; and yet you feel this movement (both political and musical) couldn’t possibly have been contained. “The music comes out of the struggle,” a young, present-day activist says at one point. His companions, protesting, seem to speak for the filmmaker and history alike when they tell him he’s got it exactly wrong.