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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Shaka Zulu': Negative Metaphor For South African Blacks

November 21, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Apartheid art?

"Shaka Zulu" is a gory, foolish and demeaning 10-hour miniseries airing on KCOP Channel 13 at 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Dec. 2-3.

Shot in South Africa, it seems to shape history to fit a contemporary political theme. Yesteryear's supposedly blood-lusting Zulus fill nearly every frame of "Shaka Zulu," becoming a negative metaphor for today's black South Africans, reinforcing a wild tribal image in contrast to "civilized" whites.

The mental jump is easy to make: Where would South Africa be today (gasp) if not for a white minority government to control these bloodthirsty black savages?

If that isn't the intent of "Shaka Zulu," it's surely the predominant message.

KCOP has a right to air "Shaka Zulu" and viewers have a right to know the identities of its backers--all of them.

Subject: Shaka, the great warrior-king of the powerful Zulu nation from 1816 until his murder in 1828.

Mystery: The involvement of the state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC) in this miniseries, which has already aired in South Africa and is being syndicated in the United States and globally.

"Shaka Zulu" is identified only as a "Harmony Gold production" or "presentation" in a version made available SABC and the other co-producers contributed about $2.5 million each. And this would be "the greatest project yet undertaken by the SABC," as described in the parliamentary debate?

"Well, $2.5 million is a lot for South Africa," Agrama replied.

And why, finally, did Harmony Gold omit South African TV while including the names of the other co-producers in releasing stories about "Shaka Zulu" to the trade press this past year?

"Well, you know," Agrama said, "we were a little bit, you know, after the override of the President's veto (of limited economic sanctions against South Africa), we didn't want to make the controversy bigger."

You might say that qualifies as concealment.

Apparently, Harmony Gold feared a backlash if SABC's involvement were revealed. And, in fact, a small one has already begun.

On Wednesday night, about three-dozen demonstrators paraded outside the Palace in Hollywood where a cocktail party was held to celebrate KCOP's telecasting of "Shaka Zulu." The demonstrators, mostly black and representing several organizations, protested Shaka's depiction as a "bloodthirsty savage" and called for a boycott of this "disgusting racist propaganda."

The prevailing belief was that the South African government was behind "Shaka Zulu" and, understandably, couldn't be trusted to provide a straight account of Zulu history.

Not all the skeptics participated in the demonstration. "It's like Hitler doing the history of the Jews," said Mazisi Kunene, a black South African who teaches African literature at UCLA and is author of "Emperor Shaka the Great." Kunene, who said he has read the "Shaka Zulu" script and seen a portion of the miniseries, said its general historical framework is correct, but he blasted its depiction of Shaka and the Zulus as barbarians.

"If this were an honest effort, it would be laudable," he said. "But, instead, it corresponds to old colonial attitudes."

"I don't think it's racist," Agrama said. "It's exciting. It's reality."

Shaka is played by charismatic Henry Cele, a former South African soccer player. The cast, which is almost entirely black, also includes such well-known British actors as Edward Fox, Robert Powell, Trevor Howard and Christopher Lee.

The story portrays the Zulu leader as shrewd, resourceful, arrogant, brutal, sadistic and quite mad.

Written by Joshua Sinclair and directed by William C. Faure, this is still more black history through white eyes, with Shaka's life being described mostly in flashbacks by an Irish doctor who is part of a shipwrecked delegation of whites sent to deter Shaka from exterminating white settlers.

The story shows Shaka's life controlled largely by a hideous witch doctor, a sort of glorified bag lady. Hence, it largely reducing Zulu history to mysticism.

And violence.

It's true that Shaka and the Zulus were fierce warriors who were extremely repressive. But not 24 hours a day. There is no interpretation here, no motivation shown beyond savagery. Violence is shown as the product only of barbarism or black magic.

In fact, "Shaka Zulu" may be the most violent TV production ever shown nationally in America. It has lots of blood spilling and blood drinking, lots of spearings and grisly impalings, with many of the impaled writhing on long sticks. There are burials of the living and a couple of beheadings, one of which affords close-ups of both the head and headless body.

It is probably also the nudest production ever shown on America's non-cable TV. That includes male rear ends and female bare breasts.

Much of the time, "Shaka Zulu" is merely confusing or bad and or for reviewing and in publicity put out by KCOP. Los Angeles-based Harmony Gold is a relatively young company with a record as a syndicator or distributor of programs, however, not as a producer.

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