Made in 1987, Cry Freedom is based on the best-selling book by South African newspaper editor Donald Woods. It tells the story of Woods’ attempts to uncover the truth about the arrest and subsequent death of black activist Steve Biko, and the way in which he was forced to leave South Africa because of it. Directed by Richard Attenborough, it stars Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington. With South Africa still firmly in the grip of apartheid at the time, Zimbabwe stood in as the location, with filming taking place in Harare. It was nominated for three Oscars and numerous other awards.
Winner of the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Movie, Tsotsi is gritty, raw and profoundly moving. A tale of teenage angst in modern South Africa, it is set in the hard world of the Johannesburg townships. Tsotsi (which means “thug” in township patois) gets more than he bargains for when he steals a car and finds he’s got a baby to look after. Directed by Gavin Hood, it is based on a novel by South African writer, Athol Fugard, originally written in 1960, but left unpublished for 20 years. The protagonist is played by Sowetan native Presley Chweneyagae.
Released in 2010, Spud is a popular South African comedy based on the novel by John van de Ruit. It’s set in South Africa in 1990, around the time that Nelson Mandela was released from prison. It is a coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old boy named John Milton, who enrols in his first year of boarding school only to find himself surrounded by a world of bullies, unlikely friends and desperate crushes. Directed by Donovan Marsh, it stars Troye Sivan as Milton (who is subsequently nicknamed Spud), and John Cleese as his teacher and mentor The Guv.
Cry, The Beloved Country
First published in 1948, the year in which apartheid was officially introduced, Alan Paton’s book was described by Nadine Gordimer as ‘the most influential South African novel ever written’. It tells the story of a black preacher who goes to Johannesburg in search of his missing son. It’s been filmed three times. The first time was in 1951 by Zoltán Korda, starring Canada Lee and Charles Carson. In 1974, a poorly received musical version was filmed and entitled Lost in the City. The third version was made in 1995 by South African director Darrell Roodt, and starred James Earl Jones and Richard Harris.
First staged as a musical at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, Sarafina! was the brainchild of Mbongeni Ngema, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, and even directed the show. An unlikely topic for a musical, it told the story of the 1976 Soweto Uprisings. The play transferred to Broadway on January 28th, 1988. The film, made in 1992, stars Whoopi Goldberg and Leleti Khumalo, who also won a Tony award for the Broadway version. It was directed by Darrell Roodt, while Mbongeni Ngema wrote the screenplay. South African singing sensation Miriam Makeba and actor John Kani also starred.
Released in 1964, Total Film magazine readers nominated Zulu the 37th greatest Hollywood movie of all time, while British TV viewers rated it eighth in their top 100 Greatest War Movies. It retells the epic battle of Rorke’s Drift, at which 150 British soldiers fought off 4,000 Zulu warriors. Directed by Cy Endfield and starring Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins and a young Michael Caine, it was shot more or less on location in KwaZulu-Natal, although the Drakensberg Mountainswere rearranged closer to the battlefield to make it more picturesque. A prequel, Zulu Dawn, about the battle of Isandlwana, was made by Cy Endfield in 1979.
One of the great box office successes of 2009, Invictus tells the heart-warming story of how newly appointed President Nelson Mandela used rugby to unite a country fractured by years of apartheid and activist violence. It follows South Africa’s fight to achieve victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and the way that Mandela was able to use the tournament to win the hearts and minds of his people. Directed by Clint Eastwood, it stars Morgan Freeman as Mandela, and a suspiciously-accented Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the legendary ex-captain of the South African rugby team.
A Dry White Season
Set during the 1976 Soweto Uprisings and based on the novel by André Brink, this hard-hitting film followed the conversion to the cause of a white teacher, Ben du Toit, who came to understand the effects of apartheid. As he follows through on a personal crusade, the journey exacts a terrible toll on his own family life. The film stars Donald Sutherland and Janet Suzman, with Marlon Brando and Susan Sarandon. It was directed by Euzhan Palcy. Zimbabwe once again stood in for South Africa, where it was impossible to shoot films that tackled apartheid issues.
If you’re looking for homegrown South African humor, it’s well worth checking out the filmography of South African comedian and household name Leon Schuster. Mad Buddies is a slapstick comedy about two enemies (Boetie, played by Schuster, and Beast, played by Kenneth Nkosi) who are forced to go on a road trip together. Unbeknownst to them, they are being followed by a film crew, and their journey is being broadcast across South Africa – resulting in a comedy of errors from start to finish.
Catch A Fire
Directed by Philip Noyce and starring Tim Robbins and Derek Luke, this movie follows the story of the apartheid struggle, starting with the armed insurrection of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the military wing of the ANC) in the 1960s. It focuses on the story of a young black man who unwittingly gets caught up in the struggle and the policeman who arrests him. The real Patrick Chamusso, on whom the film is based, appears as a walk-on, while writer Shawn Slovo’s parents, leaders of the South African Communist Party and famous anti-apartheid activists, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, also appear.
With its amazing history, stunning view and enthusiastic individuals, it’s nothing unexpected that South Africa has gone about as the motivation for innumerable films throughout the years. From non-fiction histories to fantastical thrillers and tongue-in-cheek comedies, these movies cover a wide spectrum of genres – and in this article, we have picked ten of the best.