Based on a South African stage musical and filmed in Soweto.   Whoopi Goldberg shares top billing with Miriam Makeba.  The creative force behind this work is Mbongeni Ngema.  It opens with a group boys running through the night to burn a schoolroom.  In the morning, Sarafina is getting ready for school.  There are pictures of a young Nelson Mandela on the wall.  In the schoolyard, she sings of her dream of being a star.  The police are on hand to investigate the arson.  Whoopi leads the morning prayer, which turns into song and dance, and then she teaches a class on the history of Africa.  In the shadows, the boys continue to foment resistance to the authorities.  Sarafina visits her mother (Makeba) who is a maid to a rich white family.  She expresses her hatred for the whites.  There is police brutality in the streets.  The schoolchildren dream of the day Mandela will be released and bring freedom to the people.  Sarafina visits Whoopi at her brick house and learns that she is an underground freedom fighter.  She is arrested by the police.  The children are infected with the dream of freedom.  They riot in the schoolyard and children are shot (an apparent analog of the shooting of Hector Pieterson in the 1976 high school student uprising in Soweto).  The musical funeral and the oration are deeply stirring.  The students march on a police barricade but flee when tear gas is fired.  There is rioting and vandalism.  They gather at the house of a known police informer and chase him through a wasteland of ruined vehicles.  When they run him down, they dowse him with gasoline and burn him alive.  The police crack down on the township, dragging many of the children away to prison.  There are wrenching depictions of interrogation and torture interspersed with choral singing.  Sarafina learns that her teacher (Goldberg) is dead.  She is released from prison and goes to visit her mother where she begs for forgiveness, calling her mother a hero and admitting to being a part of the killing of the informer.  She returns to the township and dreams of the day Mandela will come home.  The ensemble sings “Freedom is Coming Tomorrow,” but sadly it looks like a warmed-over MTV video.  A print legend says that Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and that apartheid was repealed in 1991.

 The first fatal flaw in this work is in its adherence to the Western performance aesthetic (the talent show mentality).  Even so, it is employed exceptionally well.  The performers are entirely too impressed with their own talent and cleverness, but the singing is spectacular and the language is sensuous.  The second fatal flaw is in the awkward mix of musical performance and political reality.  Ebert is eloquent on this matter.  This film failed at the box office.  But there is a deeper force at work here and it is hard for a white audience to look at it.  The black children, this movie wants to tell us, have been driven to violence by the brutality of white European repression.  The argument is persuasive.  But under the surface of this awful impasse is the inability of either side to conceive a way out of it other than a regression to barbarism.  This is a beautiful and heartfelt movie undermined by cultural conceptions not suited to the integrity of the story.


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