Nelson Mandela has endorsed it. The film academy saluted it with an Oscar nomination this year for best foreign film. HBO describes it as the first major international release made in the Zulu language.
Yet the movie Yesterday will premiere tonight not in U.S. movie theaters, but on HBO. The premium cable channel bypassed the big screen to reach a wider audience via the small screen.
HBO's timing is excellent. This tender drama about a rural South African family will debut just before World AIDS Day on Thursday. At only 93 minutes, Yesterday offers U.S. viewers a perspective far different from such landmark films as An Early Frost and Philadelphia.
Writer-director Darrell James Roodt concentrates on a resilient mother named Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo), who struggles to find health care despite living in a remote village. After she learns she has HIV, she travels to Johannesburg to confront her ill husband, John (Kenneth Kambule), a miner who has passed the virus to her.
Yesterday rises to several daunting challenges. After finding no space for John in a crowded hospital, she faces down ignorant and gossipy women in her village. She draws strength from looking after her 7-year-old daughter, Beauty (Lihle Mvelase), and awaiting the day the child starts school.
Roodt repeatedly showcases gorgeous South African landscapes as a counterpoint to this sad story. He tells the story in a subtle way and at a deliberate pace, which could challenge viewers. (The mere idea of subtitles could be another obstacle.) Yet, in the end, Roodt forcefully puts across this story about the need for sexual honesty.
Above all, he guides splendid performances. Khumalo plays Yesterday with invigorating sweetness and determination. She and Kambule don't stint in portraying the couple's harrowing physical decline. Roodt draws lovely work from young Mvelase, who had never acted before.
Yesterday was made with the full cooperation and support of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Mandela, whose eldest son died of AIDS-related complications in January, issued a statement supporting the film.
"We are confident that this will assist in spreading the message of prevention, caring for and supporting those infected and affected by the pandemic, and most importantly, highlight the need to remove stigma and discrimination," he said.
According to the most recent data from the United Nations, South Africa is estimated to have 5.6 million people infected with HIV, the largest number of individuals living with the virus in a single country. Across the African continent, AIDS kills 56,000 every week, according to Newsweek.
At his son's death, Mandela said, "Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it, because the only way of making it appear to be a normal illness just like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and say somebody has died because of HIV."
Yesterday makes that point so eloquently that this subtitled story becomes universal.
Hal Boedeker writes for the Orlando Sentinel.
Yesterday Tonight at 9 on HBO (to be repeated at 9 p.m. Thursday).