Vuyisile Mini’s surviving family comes together to remember him. Though he was buried almost 40 years ago in South Africa, the godfather of the black freedom song is impossible to forget. Mini trumpeted lyrics against the Jericho wall built by an oppressive government. In the throats of his people, the lullaby melody of “Watch Out Verwoerd” carried a warning to “the architect of apartheid, Henrik Verwoerd” — and may have driven the final nail into Mini’s coffin: In 1964, while other antiapartheid activists like Nelson Mandela received comparatively light life sentences, Mini was executed in one of many acts of state terrorism committed by Verwoerd’s National Party.
After Mini’s bones are recovered from the grave where he was buried “like a dog” (as one of the attendees of the ceremony laments), his remains are gloriously reinterred. Then, generations of his relatives joyously dance and sing in the Xhosa language while resurrecting his anthem: “Watch out for the black man, Verwoerd!” One of his kin, catching the spirit of the moment — one that realizes Mini’s dream of black freedom come true now in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa — shouts, “Amandla (power) to the people!”
Miriam Makeba, a formerly exiled singer and activist, recalls that the slogan of black South Africans had been “Free in ’63.” But the dream of amandla was, of course, long and violently deferred. And each phase of their struggle had its motivating and supporting sound track.
Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony is director Lee Hirsch’s auspicious debut feature documentary and an incomparable piece of cinema. He structures this history of a people’s oppression, struggle and liberation as an epic reflection of Mini’s suffering, death and ironic resurrection. Hirsch fleshes out this framework with still photographs, newsreel footage, interviews and re-enactments.
But the heart of Amandla! is the music — from concert footage or captured in impromptu moments. Playwright and historian Duma Ka Ndlovu explains, “Our parents would break into song at the slightest provocation.” In Amandla!, Hirsch follows suit by creating a moving new genre: the musical documentary.
Opens Wednesday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].