'Sarafina!' is at its best when embracing its South African roots

MOVIES

September 25, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Part folk opera and part Hollywood musical, "Sarafina!" takes us to the darkest part of the world with a song in our heart. It is, to put it mildly, a paradox inside a conundrum wrapped in a tragedy.

It's a kind of musical homage to the generation of black South African township children who waged war against the South African power structure with very little more than their faith in the future and the conviction that someday freedom would come. Somehow, tiny fists against tanks and goons with streetsweepers doesn't seem like much of a match, but the true glory which "Sarafina!" justly celebrates is that somehow, in some form, the children won.

Leleti Khumalo, who seems in some way to be the Judy Garland of Soweto, re-creates the role she won a Tony for. Her Sarafina is somehow "typical" and yet also specific -- a real child with a mother, a home, a heart. She teems with life and hope, both for the future of her people and herself. Khumalo is nothing if not effervescent; when she smiles and her eyes load with joy, it's as if the sun is breaking out, the flowers are blooming and peace has been restored to the land. OK, I exaggerate; but only a little.

The movie finds her one morning getting ready for school, dreaming of silly things, like stardom; it ends, a year later, in which she has been politicized, has resisted, been brutalized, seen friends die, has herself actually participated in murder (the film has the guts to show the temptations of violence to the oppressed and the nerve to suggest that there has to be a better way) and been horribly tortured by the Afrikaans police. Yet, her spirit unbroken, she remains committed to the future.

I think the piece works best when it is truest to the South African idiom of music and rage out of which it springs. In the early going, the director Darrell James Roodt, almost certainly abetted by the American choreographer Michael Peters (most famous for the Michael Jackson video "Beat It"), tries for a form-blowing mixture of professional dance amid human tragedy and it just doesn't work. It's like Mel Brooks' chorus line of swimming nuns at the Spanish Inquisition, so contradictory that it is befuddling rather than powerful.

Clearly, what's going on here is a war of form. "Sarafina!," world famously, was originally a stage musical, and on the highly stylized venue of the stage, it achieved a symbolic grandeur. Moved to the authentic streets of Soweto, the clash between stage conventions and the dusty reality is mind-blowingly awkward, especially as Peters has encouraged his dancers (including the charismatic Khumalo) to a kind of generic American show-bizzy vulgarity. I kept waiting for someone to start blasting out "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" on Soweto's scabbiest and most despairing of dirt streets.

Another attempt to internationalize the appeal has been the casting of Whoopi Goldberg as Mary Masembuko, an inspirational teacher who tries to free her children's minds if not their bodies by encouraging them to appreciate their black heritage. Chalk this one off as a Good Idea whose time never quite came. Goldberg struggles with the accent and when she's dumped in the middle of one of the more ludicrous early numbers, it's rapidly apparent that she's not a dancer. Somehow, she never stops being the beloved Whoopi and her presence has a somewhat muting impact on the proceedings.

But as "Sarafina!" rolls onward, it seems to happily lose interest in being "international" and becomes fiercely South African; the music drives forward and seems to refind its African soul. That's when it turns scorching and brilliant.

'Sarafina!'

Starring Leleti Khumalo and Whoopi Goldberg.

Directed by Darrell James Roodt.

Released by Hollywood Pictures.

Rated PG-13.

***

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