How many award winning movies about South Africa can you name? Not many I’ll bet. It’s not a country that you’d normally associate with great movie making or even great movies, but here are 10 movies about South Africa I’m sure you’ll agree are indeed great. They include some Oscar winning and Oscar nominated movies about South Africa.
The dark underbelly of the golden city, Johannesburg, is revealed in the life of a teenage township tsotsi (thug) in the ghetto alter-ego of Johannesburg that is Soweto. During a six-day rampage we witness robbery, violence, car theft and murder – finally that of a women who has a baby in the back seat of her car. Tsotsi takes the baby back to his slum shack where it begins to arouse deep emotions in him we hope will lead to redemption … but it is too little too late for this victim of his own birth.
The locals cringed when even the great Clint Eastwood set out to tell the uplifting story about how the Springboks lifted the rugby world cup trophy in 1995. I mean really, what do Americans know about rugby? But they sure know how to make movies. Casting Matt Damon as Springbok skipper Francois Pienaar was inspired. But what the film is really about is how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman in Mandela party mask) used the occasion to unite a divided nation. Now that was a stroke of genius.
Dir. Clint Eastwood
Nominated for best picture Oscar, 2010
imdb score 7.6
And coming to a cinema near you soon, Disgrace, starring John Malkovic, based on the novel of the same name by South African Nobel laureate JM Coetzee.
District 9 (2009)
Regarded by many critics as not only the best sci-fi movie of 2009, but among the best overall according according to Time‘s Lev Grossman. It’s a retelling of The Day the Earth Stood Still, except that instead of high-minded sentiments delivered by suave actors, we have insect-like creatures, hate and lots of noise and bodily gooze. One thing’s for sure, you’ll never look at a prawn the same way again. As Grossman says, bring on District 10.
Dir. and screenplay Neill Blomkamp, Producer Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings)
Nominated for best picture Oscar, 2010
imdb score 8.3
Cry, the Beloved Country (1995)
Adapted from the award-wining novel by Alan Paton, and with an star cast including James Earl Jones and Richard Harris. A black, country parish priest is summonsed to Johannesburg where he learns his son is in jail for the murder of young white man. The action is really about the priest (Jones) and the murdered man’s white racist father (Harris). The book starts “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.” But it is the inner journey taken by these two men that is the real action of the movie.
Dir. Darryl Roodt.
imdb score 6.7
Red Dust (2004)
It was not just the handing over of power from a white regime to a black democratically elected government that set South Africa apart; it was the jaw-dropping Truth and Reconciliation Commission that saw secret police and guerillas ‘fes up, voluntarily. This movie tells the story behind some of those stories. Raw action, just like the red dust of the title is the backdrop. The lead role – of South African-born attorney Sarah Barcant who returns to her homeland to represent a former political prisoner – is played by Hillary Swank.
Dir. Tom Hooper, from the novel by Gillian Slovo.
imdb score 6.9
It happens all the time – Brits play Americans, Aussies play Brits, Aussies play Americans, Americans play Brits and Aussies, and do South Africans (think Charlize Theron) – mostly with aplomb. But few outsiders have really mastered a half-decent South African accent, so casting little-known American Thomas Jane to play rogue Afrikaner cop Andre Stander was a gamble. It pays off, mostly, with the accepted slips of accent. Then again, the thrill of watching a decorated detective turn against society and state and become the most wanted man in the country is reward enough. As the tag-line goes: “good cop, great criminal”.
Dir. Bronwen Hughes
imdb score 7.2
The Road to Mecca (1992)
Tells the story of village recluse Helen Martins and the muse (light) behind her extraordinary if crude and often dark outsider art. We understand she is tormented from some kind of family abuse tied up with religious fanaticism. Her escape comes late in life through a very personal kind of artistic expression: turning the family home into a glass-covered Owl House and Camel Yard. Athol Fugard and his muse Yvonne Bryceland play a very tight ensemble. Also starring Kathy Bates and Marius Weyers.
Dir. and script Athol Fugard and Peter Goldsmid
Screenplay from Fugard’s play of the same name.
imdb score 7.1
A Dry White Season (1989)
Talk about a star-studded cast – Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon, Janet Suzman, Marlon Brandon, Jurgen Prochnow, Marius Wyers and Winston Ntshona among them. Based on the novel by Andre Brink, about … what else, apartheid! This time about an Afrikaner schoolteacher who, through the police brutality meted out to his gardener’s son, begins to question his people’s “god given” political mission. And then his troubles start.
Dir. Euzhan Palcy
imdb score 6.9
The first movie about and filmed in South Africa with a truly international feel. It might still be the best (District 9 depending). This was the film that launched the career of one Michael Caine, and also starred Stanley Baker and Jack Hawkins. It is a Lawrence of Arabia style epic of the ill-fated battle of Rorke’s Drift, when a small British garrison held off a Zulu army of thousands during the Anglo-Zulu war or 1897. An “an edge of your seat spectacular” according to imdb.
Dir. Cy Endfield
imdb score 7.9
Country of my Skull (2004)
Washington Post journalist Langston Whitfield (Samuel L Jackson) is sent to cover the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche) is an Afrikaans journalist covering the hearings for local radio. Need we say more? In fact yes, like how Whitfield tracks down notorious colonel De Jager (Brendan Gleeson), the most feared secret police torturer of the apartheid state. And how Anna must confront the cruelty of her own people. But it’s still not enough to make this movie really moving. Partly too many accents running amock.