"At one time we were saying 'Free in '63,'" recalls internationally renowned singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba, laughing ruefully at her youthful naivete. The struggle to overthrow South Africa's oppressive system of segregation dragged on for decades, and Lee Hirsch's documentary examines one of the driving forces that sustained the movement through the years of struggle: "freedom music." Implemented in 1948, apartheid laws systematically stripped black South Africans of their basic rights and segregated them in blighted, government constructed townships until they were dismantled in the mid 1980s. The film combines interviews with activist musicians, disc jockeys and producers including such well-known figures as Makeba and Hugh Masekela archival footage and extended musical sequences. The first-person reminiscences are moving, but the most eloquent indictments of the system seep through newsreels and propaganda films. One Nationalist member of parliament declares heatedly that reports of brutality against black South Africans are "a bunch of lies," while Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the father of apartheid, laments that the policy has been "misunderstood" as punitive and racist that "could just as easily and perhaps much better be described as a policy of good neighborliness." Amandla means power in the Xhosa language, and the power of these songs helped keep anti-apartheid sentiment alive at a grassroots level, despite brutal official suppression. Like the protest songs that helped define America's civil rights era, freedom music energized and mobilized the black South African community; they also gave voice to political sentiments that might otherwise have landed their authors in prison, cloaking calls to resistance in infectious rhythms and deceptively cheerful melodies. One singer gleefully recalls white South Africans clapping along, oblivious to the incendiary revolutionary lyrics, remarking, "these black people sing so nice." Hirsch's short history of apartheid is framed by the story of Vusi Mahlasela, widely considered one of the greatest writers and singers of freedom music. Hanged in 1964 for his opposition to government policies, he went to the gallows singing in a stirring bass voice and was unceremoniously buried in a pauper's grave. Four decades after his execution, his remains were finally disinterred and moved to a more suitable resting place. Though overlong and repetitive, Hirsch's film is vitalized by the same music that helped keep the revolutionary spirit alive, by turns lyrical, dirge-like and driving, punctuated by hand claps, stamping feet and wailing vocalizations that express pain and resolve beyond the reach of words.
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- Released: 2002
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: "At one time we were saying 'Free in '63,'" recalls internationally renowned singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba, laughing ruefully at her youthful naivete. The struggle to overthrow South Africa's oppressive system of segregation dragged on f… (more)
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