One of the most heartening qualities of art is the way it regularly blossoms out in seemingly incongruous places. From the gardens of the wealthy, we may see only pale malaise, while just across town, in the slums, something in the darkness, blood and impoverishment may fertilize a rose. Or a hundred of them.
The South African musical "Sarafina!" (El Capitan), now expanded into a vibrant and memorable film by its inspiring writer-composer Mbongeni Ngema--is a joyous response to a desperate and deadly situation: apartheid, martial law and riots in Soweto in the mid-'70s. It's an intoxicating film, and there's something both wounding and dreamily reassuring about its wild contrasts, in the way Ngema and his collaborators, co-writer William Nicholson and director Darrell James Roodt, mix musical fantasy with a reality so raw, your eyes sting while watching it.
Against a scarring backdrop of misery and anger, Ngema sets the buoyant image of his teen-age heroine Sarafina (Leleti Khumalo). Against the ominous rumble of gunfire he sets the bright infectious beat of Hugh Masekela's indigenous mbaqanga songs. And just as the flames tear up part of their shantytown and school, co-choreographer Ngema's high-stepping dancers fire up and tear up their scenes.
The play, based on the 1976 Morris Isaacson Junior High revolt, follows the lives of Sarafina and her classmates on two fronts: surviving the madness and pain of their daily lives, and reveling in the rhythms and energy of the school musical they're creating. "I love happy endings!" Sarafina's teacher Mary (Whoopi Goldberg) tells them, and that's the way the show climaxes: in a burst of Zulu costumes, music, fire and color, with strutting Sarafina, happily disguised as a freed Nelson Mandela. But that's only a show, only a dream . . . the deaths are just outside.
The play suggested those terrors by narration and stagecraft. The movie brings them home with brutal immediacy. Smoke billows, rifles crack, blood spurts. We get the heat of Soweto, shots of torture, boiling turbulence. And, somehow, all this added context, the reality that lay shroud-like behind the play's bright panoply, makes the songs and dances more precious. "Sarafina!" the movie may not be as ebullient as the stage version, but it has something else: the capacity to shatter us.
The film is subtitled "A Song of Freedom" and it's also, obviously, a song of rebellion and rage against injustice. But the rage isn't poisonous. One of the movie's themes is that dreams, art and music are a way of getting past the horrors of life, not by masking them, but through a kind of magical combat.
The part of Sarafina was written for Khumalo, a radiant charmer, and her big, warming smile captures the camera the way her explosive dancing caught the stage. She's always been "Sarafina!'s" show-stopper, but here she and the other actors--some of them, like Dumisani Dlamini, from the original ensemble, some of them, like Whoopi Goldberg, Miriam Makeba (as Sarafina's mother) and John Kali (as her principal), newly added for the movie--pour themselves into the roles.
This is wholehearted acting, cautionless. Goldberg gives Mary full measure of the serenity and sarcasm that often underpin her comedy. Even the villains--Tertius Mentjes as Lt. Bloem and Robert Whitehead as the Interrogator--tend to touch their words with fire. The film has the effect of a joint mutual testament from everyone involved: stronger since it comes from a mixed black and white cast and crew, speaking sentiments that unite them all.
Roodt, only 29, is a white African who has made several international prize-winning films, including the anti-racist "A Place of Weeping" and the anti-war "The Stick." In some ways, he might be described as a young South African Sidney Lumet--he has a similar love of pyrotechnic acting and big social themes--though it's Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" that he's named as his favorite movie. And though Roodt has dealt with racism before, Ngema's viewpoint may have helped him get more humor and passion. There's a fury in the editing, a shine and virtuosity to his images.
Perhaps inevitably, especially in Los Angeles, which underwent horrific riots itself, "Sarafina!" may be questioned for its riot scenes. Are they irresponsible? A goad to more violence? Yet "Sarafina!" doesn't revel in or exalt bloodshed, the way many American action movies do. The violence is shown as a steadily accelerating chain of terror, which leaves both Sarafina and us drained.
There are two key images in "Sarafina!": one of a tank bearing down, in a scarily foreshortened telephoto shot, on scampering, playful dancers enacting Sarafina's Hollywood fantasy of stardom and Oscars, and another of demonstrators advancing on a line of soldiers, confronting them not with weapons but with defiant songs and wildly exuberant dance.