DRUM (South Africa, 2004, 94 min.), directed by Zola Maseko; screenplay by Jason Filardi; cinematography by Lisa Rinzler; edited by Troy Takaki; music by Cedric Gradus Samson; with Taye Diggs (Henry Nxumalo), Gabriel Mann (Jürgen Schadeberg), Tumisho K. Masha (Can Themba), Moshidi Motshegwa (Florence Nxumalo), Jason Flemyng (Jim Bailey), Bonginkosi Dlamini/aka “Zola” (Slim/Alpheus), Fezile Mpela (Todd Matshikiza), Thapelo Mokoena (Casey Motsisi), Greg Melville-Smith (Major Att Spengler), Lindane Nkosi (Nelson Mandela), Tessa Jaye (Carol Shand), Bonnie Mbuli (Dara Macala).  In English and Zulu.

 

 

“From the coffee plantations of the Gold Coast to the jazz-stung nightspots of Nigeria, from the slow pomp of Uganda's royal ceremonies to the livid frenzy of Kenya's turmoils; in the dreaming hamlets of Zululand; among Cape Town's fun-filled coon life, and Johannesburg's teeming, thrilling thousands - everywhere, every month DRUM is read and relished."-- Henry Nxumalo January 1956

 

“It is almost fourteen years now, whilst still in exile, that I learnt about this time and place called Sophiatown.  For want of a better word I have been obsessed ever since and this film is the fruit of this obsession. . . It is through the eyes of this man that we relive this extraordinary time and place.  For me, Henry Nxumalo personified this period.  Not only was he at the forefromt of documenting it as a journalist, but also his story is the story of Sophiatown.”—Zola Maseko

 

Drum, the first feature film by director Zola Maseko, brings us into the heart of Sophiatown, the Johannesburg township that in the 1940s and 1950s witnessed South Africa’s equivalent of the harlem Renaissance, a brief moment of racial mixing and creativity. Sophiatown was one of the few areas where black South Africans could own their own property and, despite their poverty, hold their heads high.  Sophiatown was the place to go to listen to Hugh Masakela, Dolly Rathebe, and Marian Makeba, where musicians mingled with tsotsis (gangsters or thugs, a term derived from the American “zoot suit”), prostitutes with artists, whites with blacks.  It was a living affront to the Nationalist Party, to the “Boers” who were leading the country from informal to formal apartheid.

 

The standard-bearer of the Sophiatown spirit was Drum magazine, and most notably the man who would come to be called “Mr. Drum,” Henry Nxumalo.  Drum was financed and owned by whites, staffed by a multi-racial set of extremely talented writers and photographers, read by black Africans throughout the English-speaking parts of the continent.  The writing was sassy, colorful, cynical, and—for a while—hard-hitting and dangerously investigative.  They knew they were living in a special time--their motto was “We live fast, we die young, and we leave a good-looking corpse!”—and little did they suspect how right they were.

 

This film weaves together the stories of all three of the above--Nxumalo, Drum, and Sophiatown.  The film opens with Nxumalo covering a boxing match in the company of a young Nelson Mandela, of all people!  Unlike Mr. Mandela, at this stage in his life the future “Mr. Drum” was only interested in living the fast life: covering sports, drinking and clowning with his cronies from Drum magazine, romancing the beautiful singer Dara Macala, then slinking home to his wife and kids.  But change is in the air for Henry.  Drum’s British-born editor, Jim Bailey, insists that he do a story on the township crime scene.  Henry resists, but ultimately gives in, which leads him to an acquaintance with a petty gang leader and brutal killer known as Slim (played powerfully by the Kwaito music star, Zola, who also played a gangster in Tsotsi), whom he knew in passing from his evenings in the Sophiatown shebeens, the illegal township drinking joints (it was illegal for blacks to drink in public) that they both frequented.  When Henry, along with Drum’s white photographer, young Jürgen Schadeberg, witnesses Slim in a bit of lethal turf warfare, something inside him seems to shift and to connect; he is forced to recognize the violence and internalized brutality that underlies the Sophiatown high life.  Henry himself begins to suggest assignments to his editor, most notably a piece of undercover investigative journalism inside a Bethal Boer farm.  He passes himself off as an ordinary laborer there, experiences slave-like conditions, then narrowly escapes with his life.  When his account of his time at the farm hits the stands, the reputation and aura of both Drum and “Mr. Drum” are firmly established.  His reputation is secured when he deliberately gets himself put into jail, and then writes about the horrendous conditions there.

 

            As the film progresses, Henry becomes more and more aware of—and willing to go head-to-head with—the full extent of the institutional racism that was hardening into the Nationalist party’s full-blown apartheid system.  But when he uncovers plans by the authorities to start evicting black Africans from Sophiatown, the authorities (embodied in the thuggish Afrikaner Major Att Spengler) step in, and it is the beginning of the end for Henry Nxumalo and for Sophiatown.

 

* * *

                             

            Zola Maseko originally planned to tell the story of Sophiatown in a television series entitled Sophiatown Short Stories, six episodes on the life of this multiracial Johannesburg district in the Forties.  Unable to gain entry into the closed world of the South African Television Company, he eventually had better luck when he shifted to film, focused on the figure of Henry Nxumalo (1917-1957) and his crusading work for Drum, and secured the interest and participation of the African-American actor Taye Diggs (who gives a strong performance, despite occasional lapses in his South African accent).

 

The result is a more conventional film in some ways (i.e., focusing on the turnaround, heroic growth, and self-sacrifice—as well as the love life--of the central character).  Maseko adjusts historical chronology and detail to accord with his dramatic curve.  Bailey was in fact the owner, not the editor of the magazine, and was not responsible for its day-to-day functioning.  Whereas in the film, the other Drum writers come across as little more than fun-loving hedonists or abject depressives, in fact, the Drum writers—Can Themba, Todd Matshikiza, Casey Motsisi, and the others, were to be counted among the greatest writers of their generation.  Can Themba comes across as more or less a failed talent, drunkard, and victim of the apartheid interdiction against racial mixing; while his career was certainly cut short by alcoholism and his potential crushed by apartheid, he did in fact manage to produce brilliant and important work.  Finally, Henry Nxumalo did not meet his end until two years after the bulldozers came to Sophiatown, though it is clearly important to both the film’s story and its message that the two be conflated.

 

Despite these differences, though, Maseko really does manage to bring this little-known and absolutely crucial time and place to life, ultimately in a powerful way.  It quite effectively tells the story of a milieu that was ferociously alive, rich in possibility, and doomed.  As the ending of the film, the story of Henry Nxumalo is ultimately a story of triumph, even if the triumph is a long time coming.  In the words of Sylvester Stein, who was Nxumalo’s last editor at Drum, in his recent book, Who killed Mr Drum???, "They died long ago and far too early, our men; yet with a fine kind of irony that would have appealed to them, they are more alive today than those who killed them ... it is they who live on in our histories."

 

* * *

 

            Zola Maseko was born in exile in 1967 and attended school in Swaziland and Tanzania.  At the age of twenty, he joined Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress and fought against the apartheid regime.  In the early 1990s he went to the UK to attend the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, from which he graduated in 1994.

 

            He then began the difficult process of trying to break into the film industry as a black South African.  He returned to South Africa in 1994 and made the short fiction film, The Foreigner, which won several international awards for him.  He then made two documentaries (both of which have been at the Cascade Festival): The Life and Times of Sarah Baartman (1998) and The Return of Sarah Baartman (2002).  Both films tell the story of the woman who came to be known as “The Hottentot Venus,” a cruel story of racism and exploitation.  He also made Children of the Revolution (2002) and A Drink in the Passage (2002), which won the Special Jury Award at the Pan-African Film Festival (FESPACO), all the while working on the ideas and the script that would become Drum.  While Drum was in post-production, he began developing and writing the script for Homecoming, a television series directed by Norman Maake, the young South African director of Soldiers of the Rock, who was the guest of CFAF in 2005.  It tells the story of several former freedom fighters who have returned to South Africa and are trying to adjust to the new life there.  Several episodes of Homecoming were ultimately ultimately edited into a feature film and released under the same name. Maseko is now working on a film project entitled Liverpool Leopard.

 

            The producer of both Homecoming and Drum was Dumisani Dlamini, who was brutally murdered in his Johannesburg home during a break-in and robbery.  Drum is dedicated to him, a reminder that although South Africa has made progress in so many ways, in other ways it remains beset by enormous challenges.

 

                                                                                           --Notes by Michael Dembrow

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