Mbongeni Ngema's agitprop musical Sarafina! enthralled American audiences during its long Broadway run: The stark contrast between the infectious mbaqanga rhythms straight out of South Africa's embattled black townships and the cruelties of apartheid made it a political placard you could tap yourfoot to.
The movie version is admirable but a bit dull, catchy but clumsy, a bag of mixed blessings. The addition of rising star Whoopi Goldberg as a martyred, truth-telling high school teacher seems calculated to broaden the film's appeal. Goldberg vanishes into prison halfway through, and we are left to draw even more inspiration from the title character, a poor, pretty kid who first dreams of becoming a movie star (fomenting the first fantasy production number) but winds up personifying the tough, idealistic spirit of resistant black South African youth itself (fomenting the last production number, "Freedom is Coming Tomorrow"). Twenty-one-year-old Leleti Khumalo reprises her New York stage performance here, and the camera loves her: From start to finish, she's a lively, appealing presence brimming with life.
Fortunately, Mandela is now out of jail, Botha's out of office and apartheid has been rescinded, so Sarafina! may not pack quite the wallop it did when, against all odds, it premiered in Johannesburg in June 1987. Still, the human rights battle is not over in South Africa, as last week's brutal massacre in Ciskei attests. So the re-creations here of the Soweto student riots of 1976, the squalor of life in the shantytowns, and the portraits of arrogant white cops patrolling the schoolyard with automatic weapons while their black lackeys in the principal's office and the constable's car do their bidding will remain a powerful tonic and a painful spur to memory.
For the film, playwright Ngema has chosen Britisher William Nicholson as co-writer, Michael Peters as co-choreographer and Darrell James Roodt (Place of Weeping, The Stick) as director, and they've combined to create a call to justice that's at once stirring and sentimental. "My children cannot eat glory," one beleaguered black mother laments. Perhaps, but as the souls of Sarafina and her classmates come into bloom under the whip of oppression, we nonetheless feel the spiritual nourishment of glory. In their faces we see the future.
Screenplay by William Nicholson and Mbongeni Ngema, from Ngema's play. Directed by Darrell James Roodt. With Leleti Khumalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Dumisani Dlamini, and Miriam Makeba.