The Onions opened, incongruously to the film, three goofy white guys playing bright pop songs. Movie starts with a way-zoomed-in cellphone video of a woman disrobing before a Mandela statue. Director’s family is from South Africa, grandma disparages Mandela for ending apartheid. Then we get educational segments on history of the black-only Transkei district, featuring excessively unedited news archives interviewing relentlessly optimistic Black kids and their parents on the eve of integration. Movie goes off the rails with two (not just one!) extended conversations between the filmmaker and her white friends about privilege and prejudice revealed by some minor personal interactions, the visual in these sections just subtitles over an annoyingly dark-grey screen with a couple lines visible on the edges.

Failed folk musician goes decades without realizing his records became a bootleg sensation in South Africa, flies there for massive concerts then returns to his humble Detroit life. “It remains too strange to be true.” Archive footage, some of it just vintage mood stuff, bit of rotoscoping, some fun jump cuts. Repetition or rambling in the interviews is preferable to the dodgy dialogue editing we usually get in these things. This won an oscar (vs. three govt/military stories and an AIDS activism doc) and Rodriguez has now played a bunch of live shows, for which he hopefully got paid, since he’s getting nothing from the oscars or those album sales.

An extremely by-the-numbers account of a girl named Sandra born with black skin to white parents and what that means in apartheid-era South Africa. A couple of surreal moments (after a law change, Sandra’s dad Sam Neill proclaims that his daughter is white again) but mostly a straightforward story with oscar-wannabe production (no dice, but won two major awards at the Pan-African festival in L.A.) and no particular interest.

Young Sandra grows into Sophie Okonedo (who had hands-for-feet in Aeon Flux). She and her mom Alice Krige (star of Institute Benjamenta) are the powerhouse actors of the film (that’s not Sam Neill’s fault – he just has to be a bitter ol’ racist, and does a fine job at it). The movie is (of course! apartheid!) full of easy-target racist characters calculated to inflame audience emotion. Surprisingly, Sandra’s older brother becomes one of them late in the film. She gives up on the white life, runs off with a black man (Tony Kgoroge of Invictus) and has two kids, but leaves him after a beating, moves to Jo-burg and gets a factory job. Dad never gets a reconciliation, but mom (with decent old-age makeup) does.

A government paperwork wonk named Wikus is given the task of going door-to-door in the South African slums and telling all the aliens from another planet they are to be relocated. When he discovers one alien (and his young son) who has been reassembling their technology underground in order to retake control of their mothership, Wikus accidentally exposes himself to a chemical that transmogrifies him into an alien. Kickass action involving disintegration weapons and armored body suits follow. Weird, thrilling, completely unique movie – influences seem to be Cloverfield (handheld camerawork + action fx) and The Fly (Katy would not enjoy the Wikus-to-alien transformation).

The director on Peter Jackson’s involvement:

There’s no way I could have gotten this film made as what I wanted to make, without his involvement. So it’s much more than just saying, “Go and do what you want.” It’s “Can I put a guy in the movie who’s never acted before, but I think he can carry the lead role?” There’s no way that would have happened if he wasn’t producing it. So he said “Yes.” And then, “Can they keep South African accents? And they’re thick accents.” “Yes.”

My taunting of Katy for complaining about long movies (“long” > 105 minutes) bit me in the ass today. After an hour delay the movie started, and after 2.5 hours I was the first to moan about how LONG that damned movie was.

The project may have been initiated by the country of Namibia, but it says Burnett wrote and directed, so I’m laying the blame at his feet. So what went wrong? The other Burnett movies I’ve seen centered around small communities, so maybe his style can’t support stretching out to epic scale with ten countries and a hundred characters. Katy points out that Danny Glover had the only character with any depth, and Burnett said in an interview that Glover’s character was fictional, a blending of three or four real people, so maybe Burnett has problems with writing history and his strength is in fictionalization. After the recent reissue of Killer of Sheep, every film critic fell over himself to declare Burnett an American treasure, so maybe the combined weights of feeling like he has to live up to his reputation and deliver a high-quality picture, and feeling like it’s his duty to truthfully deliver the story of Namibia to the rest of the world led to too much compromise.

Plot: Young Sam Nujoma grew up in “South West Africa” (aka Namibia), a country governed by nazi… i mean Germans and occupied by South Africa. Sam always dreamed of a free Namibia. He met some guys who also wanted that, and started a political/guerrilla movement called SWAPO. He went to church and met minister Danny Glover. Then he pissed off to the United Nations and stayed there for twenty years, finally returning as president of his newly-independent nation. Yay!

I didn’t realize that Carl Lumbly (who played grown-up Sam Nujoma in a series of fake beards) was also the easily-manipulated slacker Junior in Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger.

Quoting myself in an email:
Movie feels long, and yet each scene feels too short. Tries to tell the *entire* story of Namibia AND of [Nujoma] without leaving anything out, so it’s an epic and a biopic crammed into 2.5 hours. Script feels like a wikipedia article. And story problems aside, it’s full of traditional epic-sounding music, and traditional cutting and camerawork… doesn’t feel like the idiosyncratic artworks that the other Burnett films I’ve seen (Sheep, Wedding, Anger, the shorts) felt like. Disappointing. BUT it’s got some great shots and some fine acting, and the stories of Namibia and Nujoma are interesting, so it was at least worth sitting through. It’s not total crap (like Amazing Grace), just not the great movie I was hoping for.