The Common Good
May-June 2002

Singing Down the Walls

by Robin Fillmore | May-June 2002

The film opens with a faint sound, a vibration that says something's coming, and so you listen very closely.

The film opens with a faint sound, a vibration that says something's coming, and so you listen very closely. Then there are voices—many—singing the full and glorious harmonies of Africa. It's an overwhelming gospel of possibility sung by those who had nothing but hope and their voices with which to sing. Such is Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, a documentary produced and directed by Lee Hirsch on the critical role music played in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Amandla!, which means "power" in Swahili, is an HBO-financed project that won the Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It will air on HBO, although programmers haven't yet set a date. Part living history lesson, part archival search, Hirsch interviews activists, poets, and singers for their stories of how they lived under the brutally repressive system of forced separation in South Africa. Activists explain how the songs and chants gave voice to blacks as they narrated the stories of the forced relocations from their homes in the city into shantytowns. The songs said to the minority whites: "Here are the black people." By also including archival films, Hirsch puts us in the front row of the chorus, where historic gatherings of protesters sang with every part of their bodies—their feet dancing, their hands raised in fists of prayer, and their heads bobbing to a rhythm of release. The struggle against apartheid consumed one's life and soul.

THE DOCUMENTARY'S central character is Vuyisile Mini, who we first see as his body is being exhumed from a potter's field. Executed by hanging in 1963 in a Pretoria jail, Mini was a trade labor organizer whose stirring bass voice and impassioned lyrics aroused blacks to remain defiant in the face of apartheid and committed to the ideal that victory over oppression was inevitable. Mini's songs were neither dirges nor fight songs but soulful chants with melodies of promise. Not understanding the language, white teachers unknowingly led their black students in singing Mini's words—among them "White man, we're gonna hurt you."

In the film, Mini's heirs are brought together to re-inter his body and to offer this hero of the revolution a proper burial. As dignity is restored to Mini's body, dignity is restored to the millions of blacks in South Africa. Like the walls of Jericho, the walls of apartheid were blown down with song.

The film does nothing to capture the current state of crisis and disease in South Africa, but, in fairness, that isn't what director Hirsch intended. He leaves his audience with the belief that the world is a better place without the horrors of apartheid, and for that, we thank him. Hirsch has reconstructed a world so vivid in its colors and so compelling in its symphony that we can see the faces, visit the places, and hear the tales of those who committed themselves to spreading the gospel of justice. And we're also left singing Vuyisile Mini's words: "Mayihambe le vangeli; Mayigqib ilizwe lonke," or "Let this gospel spread and be known through the world."

Robin Fillmore Chapin is director of internship, education, and hospitality at Sojourners. See www.hbo.com to check screening dates.

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