Kalushi Movie Review

In the scene depicting his last one-on-one meeting with his family (his older brother and girlfriend — his mother absent because she can’t bear saying goodbye to her child), Solomon Mahlangu is smiling. He beams at his girlfriend as he tells her in isiNdebele to look for him among the stars when he is gone. When he is found guilty in his trial, his message is optimistic: We will be free. And as he is walked to his hanging, he, compared to the other two men scheduled to be executed alongside him, seems at peace. A voiceover repeats what are largely believed to be Mahlangu’s final words: “My blood is going to nourish the tree of freedom. Tell my people I love them and that they must continue the struggle.”

In the role of Solomon Mahlangu in 2017’s Kalushi, Thabo Andrew Rametsi III seems to glow and radiate a joy unbefitting of the ending we all already know going into the cinema. The light dims momentary but is quickly restored by an unlikely friendship with an orphan and reading ideologies against colonialism and white supremacy. Not only does the viewer walk in to the cinema knowing Mahlangu’s fate, the co-writer and director, Mandla Dube, uses Mahlangu’s trial as the primary lens. Mahlangu narrates his life up to that point inside an apartheid court that had sentenced him long before he set foot inside it.

Before he signs up to go train in military combat as a member of Umkhonto Wesizwe (MK), Mahlangu is chased across a train station by security police officers. The painstaking care the director takes to linger on his face — piss running down it and a boot on his head — makes it clear that this is where the director placed the hallelujah moment. The big turning point that led Mahlangu to become the 22-year-old man history books have hardly sketched out to this day. This is where the light dims. But if the anger had taken root, the story would have been completely different.

While the scene feels like the moment that nearly accomplished apartheid’s mission on Mahlangu, a moment that could have turned him into a man like his cousin who day drinks and seems defeated; a man who’s cowered and on the brink of crumbling but it was not to be. Smallness was not for Mahlangu, neither was anger. Thank goodness. In Rametsi’s body, Solomon Mahlangu is at his best hopeful — and maybe just a little fed up.

There are all kinds of resistance. There’s revolution as love, which Mahlangu adopts from Che Guevara. There’s heart-breaking surrender and, as seen on Mondy Motloung, there’s anger. Anger festers. At MK training, all Motloung is interested in is getting to the part where they learn to fight and shoot the oppressor. In the role of Motloung, Thabo Malema is enthralling. The schoolboy games dance in the soft film just behind his eyes. In his smile. As a viewer, he frustrated me and I’m grateful that I went to see the film a second time because I got the chance to understand. There’re Mondy Motloungs who are alive today who were let down by South Africa’s negotiated transition process. Most South Africans are in agreement that freedom without economic freedom isn’t freedom at all.

I spent 10 December 2013 with thousands of strangers on a grey and dark Johannesburg day, which was uncharacteristic of the season but in synch with the mood. From the early hours in the morning queued to be taken to the stadium where Nelson Mandela’s public memorial service was being held, there were anti-apartheid struggle songs ringing. Most of them were songs about young revolutionaries answering Mandela’s call to take up arms as part of the African National Congress (ANC)’s armed wing, Umkhonto Wesizwe. These songs called on young people to take up arms and defend their humanity, their people and their land.

Later that day at the stadium, I would tweet that I wished during the national anthem, the ANC had been thoughtful enough to lead it in its original composition. As something of an honour to those young people who didn’t live long enough to sign up for the South Africa of rainbows and butchered anthems. Almost two years after Mandela’s memorial, a chant in Mahlangu’s name could be heard from Wits University to Stellenbosch University’s divided campus. Much of #FeesMustFall’s organising took place in a building named for Mahlangu in an institution financially excluding poor black students.

Gcina Mhlophe is magnetic to watch in her brief turn as Martha Mahlangu, Solomon Mahlangu’s mother. The scene where the court hands down judgement and she leaves the room because she knows what’s coming; leaves only to collapse on a bench outside the room is powerful.

I went to see Kalushi the weekend after Samuel L. Jackson was quoted extensively for his comments against black British actors playing black Americans in both television and film. Thabo Andrew Rametsi III is the first South African actor to play the leading role in a biopic about an anti-apartheid icon. Funding and commerciality is always used to justify the dominance western actors have in African biopics, Kalushi was in production for nearly 10 years. As an audience member, I’m grateful the filmmakers did not change course or bow to pressure.

More than ever, the story of Solomon Mahlangu and many others whose names will never be known, let alone arranged into struggle hymns or put on movie posters, is relevant and needed.