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'Amandla!' works more as record than documentary

| Friday, April 25, 2003

Some documentaries suffer from tackling too large a subject too superficially.

Lee Hirsch's "Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony" strikes few notes in addressing a relatively narrow subject: the use of protest- and survival-themed music during apartheid in South Africa from 1948-94.

"Amandla!" is the Xhosa word for power.

The picture begins and concludes with the 1998 disinterment and reburial of Vuyisile Mini, who was hanged in 1964 and buried in a pauper's grave for 34 years. Mini was the most highly regarded composer of black freedom songs.

Through archival footage and interviews with and songs by such singers as Miriam Makeba, her ex-husband Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and poet Jeremy Cronin, "Amandla!" backtracks to the rise to power of the all-white National Party in 1948 and the arrest of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned in 1964, and skips forward to Mandela's release in 1990 and his jubilant appearance with the African National Congress when he was elected president of South Africa in 1994.

Because there is but a single way to view the events chronicled, the film has an aspect of preaching to the choir through the many songs of protest and survival.

The movie mentions events such as the 1960 Sharpville Massacre and the 1976 Soweto Uprising but mainly as adjuncts to the ongoing concert of songs such as "Beware Verwoerd!" The latter refers to Hendrik Verwoerd, the South African prime minister who was considered the architect of apartheid.

Taken as what it is, "Amandla!" is a selective record of a movement within a time and place. Nothing is mentioned of industry, education and economics. There's no larger context to help the outsider view the content. It is at that level more a scrap book than a history.

Additional Information:

Details

'Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony'

Director: Lee Hirsch.

MPAA rating: PG-13, for some images of violence and for momentary language.

Now playing: Denis, Mt. Lebanon.

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