Monthly Archives: October 2008

Bamboozled (US 2000)

Spike Lee has been a ‘controversial’ director since his first film, She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Nearly all of his features have focused on African-American culture and identity. Lee trained at New York University film school, following Martin Scorsese as a contemporary of Jim Jarmusch. His first film was an independent feature, but he soon attracted the attention of the studio majors and has since been an uneasy bedfellow for a number of studios. At the same time, Lee has promoted himself and his company very effectively, courting controversy, not only for his own films, but also through his interventions in public debates about other high profile films which address African-American cultural issues.

Through his public appearances and statements, Lee has gained supporters and detractors in equal measure, both within the African-American community and across American society as a whole. Bamboozled can be seen as Lee’s strongest statement about the issue of identity, with its direct references to arguably his most successful previous films Do The Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992) as well as its biting satire on contemporary culture.

These notes explore the following aspects of the film.

  • the history of black representations in American cinema and television
  • satire as a narrative form
  • music and visual style and the aesthetics of Bamboozled
  • Spike Lee as auteur.

First, an outline of the film’s premise:

Pierre Delacroix (Damon Willans) is a highly educated African-American employed as a producer on a TV channel run by a young white guy, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport). Dunwitty commands ‘Dela’ to come up with an idea that will attract a black audience. Feeling undervalued and patronised, Dela comes up with the idea of reviving the ‘minstrel shows’ of the past, expecting to create controversy and expose the institutional racism in US television through biting satire. His assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith) is sent out to find some performers and she returns with Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson) who are busking outside the studio. But Dela’s plan fails when the show is a big hit. Then there are a whole range of unexpected outcomes . . .

‘Minstrelsy’ and black performers
The central idea of Bamboozled is the recreation of a ‘blackface’ minstrel show with the intention of exposing the hypocrisy of the US television industry in its representation of black issues.

The live minstrel show in Bamboozled

The minstrel show in Bamboozled

Minstrel shows developed in the pre Civil War United States. Originally they comprised white performers wearing ‘blackface’ (burnt cork) who created a set of stereotypical characters such as ‘Uncle Tom’, ‘Mammy’, the lazy, chicken stealing ‘Rufus’ or ‘Rastus’ etc. The first of these performers was Thomas D. Rice who appeared as a crippled old black man named ‘Jim Crow’ in 1828. The term ‘Jim Crow’ later became shorthand for the whole edifice of institutionalised Southern racism that oppressed African-Americans even when slavery was ended – thus the so-called ‘Jim Crow Laws’ that underpinned segregation in the South from the late nineteenth century right up to the 1960s. These laws supported segregation of black and white people in public places and denied voting rights and equality before the law.

After the Civil War, black performers themselves began to use ‘blackface’ with its obscenely exaggerated features as an entry into performances for white audiences (including audiences in the UK and mainland Europe). Minstrel shows as live performances began to lose some of their popularity at the start of the twentieth century, but they swiftly moved to the new forms of cinema and radio, where they proved popular as the basis for enduring stereotypes.

Black performers from the 1920s through to the 1960s had two choices. They could appear in small independent films, made for the so-called ‘race’ market – black audiences in the South and in the major urban areas (the ‘race music’ market targeted black consumers in the same way). Some of these films were produced by black entrepreneurs like Oscar Micheaux. Mainstream Hollywood also made the occasional all black film, usually a musical, but mostly, black performers were restricted in Hollywood to specific roles as high class entertainers (such as Duke Ellington) or in the stereotypical supporting roles as ‘Mammy’, ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘Coon’ (the lazy and cowardly Rastus type character). Gone With The Wind (1939) is a good example of a major film with two star turns by Hattie McDaniel as the Mammy and Butterfly McQueen as the childlike maid with the high-pitched voice.

All these roles were demeaning, none more so than the ‘coon’. Hollywood paid better and made some performers into stars, but the antics of the coon were less noticeable in the all black films where such stars would just be seen as a ‘funny man’ amongst a range of black character types. As the sidekick to a white protagonist in a range of ‘B’ pictures, the coon character would widen his eyes and run as soon as danger threatened. One of the most popular performers was Mantan Moreland who played the ‘scared to death’ chauffeur Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan series in the 1940s. The name ‘Sleep ‘n Eat’ was associated with another coon figure, Willie Best. Both these actors were seen as successors to the earlier star, Stepin Fetchit.

The ‘high class entertainers’ were associated with the intellectual and artistic movements of Harlem that also produced poets and writers in the 1940s and 1950s. Reference to these movements comes in Bamboozled via Pierre’s use of the term ‘negro’ and his quotation from James Baldwin at his death. Although the entertainers in this group were wealthy and widely admired in white America, they were still ‘kept in their place’ by entertainment institutions. Lena Horne and Nat King Cole were just two performers who found themselves restricted at various times. Lena Horne’s performances in MGM musicals were edited so that they could easily be cut when the films were shown in the South (see Bogle 1992). The singer Nat King Cole was the first black star to have a networked television show (and the problems that went with it).
The most popular radio act was ‘Amos and Andy’, a pair of clowns who transferred to television in 1951 and became instantly popular portraying uneducated Southern black men. The racism of the 1820s reached television almost unchanged. The success of the show and its subsequent demise a few years later in the face of the Civil Rights movement, scared television producers and black shows were largely absent from television until the emergence of a new generation of shows in the 1970s, which again drew criticisms of ‘one dimensionality’ in terms of African-American representations. This in turn produced ‘safe’ ‘middle-class’ sitcoms such as The Cosby Show. Given the enormous number of television channels in America (over 900), remarkably few address the range of different black audiences. Breaking through the barriers of history and still extant institutional racism is the problem that confronts Pierre Delacroix in Bamboozled. It’s worth noting that in Britain The Black and White Minstrel Show (white performers in blackface) was still the centre of BBC Television’s Saturday night entertainment in the 1960s.

‘Black Americana’
One of the striking aspects of the mise en scène of Bamboozled is the deployment of numerous artefacts that depict the standard stereotypes such as the Mammy figure, ‘Little Nigger Jim’ etc. The characters on stage in the minstrel show are duplicated around Dela’s office and home as he begins to acquire figurines and posters, mirroring the activities of many contemporary African-Americans who now collect such items (including Lee himself). The moment when the savings bank seems to animate itself is a startling representation of Dela’s breakdown. These artifacts were common in North America up to the 1960s (and they existed in the UK as well). Some were associated with particular products such as Uncle Ben’s Rice, Aunt Jemimah’s Pancake Mix etc. and these kinds of associations are satirised by Lee through the reference to ‘Tommy Hilnigger’ clothes and Da Bomb malt liquor.

An example of 'Black Americana'

An example of 'Black Americana'

Another Hollywood film in 2001, Ghost World, also picks up on this phenomenon. A young high school graduate played by Thora Birch discovers an original 1950s poster for ‘Coon Chicken Inns’ and enters it in an art competition as ‘found art’, hoping to cause comment and to raise questions about institutional racism – she succeeds in creating a controversy.

The complexity of representations
There isn’t space here to do justice to the development of racial stereotypes throughout the Hollywood studio era and into television. Bogle points out that the later characters were gradually ‘humanised’ into likeable personalities – but perhaps this makes the type even more dangerous?

What is certainly true is that many of the leading black performers were supreme entertainers who gave audiences immense pleasure in viewing performances. The racism from which they suffered didn’t negate the power of their performances and this is something that Lee clearly recognises and celebrates. Savion Glover who plays Mantan/Manray is one of the foremost performers in contemporary dance and a star of international reputation – when in Bamboozled he is presented with the shoes owned by Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, it is an intensely moving moment.


1. (a) A literary work in which human vice or folly is ridiculed or attacked scornfully.
1. (b) The branch of literature which composes such work.
2. Irony, derision or caustic wit used to attack, expose folly, vice or stupidity.

These dictionary definitions of ‘satire’ are Pierre Delacroix’s first words in Bamboozled. From the outset, Spike Lee sets out his intentions. His film is clearly not going to be a ‘realist’ account of goings-on in an American television company. From this opening we should expect that the characters in the film will be broadly drawn with names that refer in some way to their role in the satire (as in Thackeray’s nineteenth century take on English manners, Vanity Fair).

This is certainly the case with the names chosen for the performers, referring directly to stereotypical characters or black performers of the 1930s. The lead character has changed his name from ‘Peerless’ (his given name – reflecting his mother’s attempt to strive for a more dignified future?) to the pretentious ‘Pierre’, more suited to his new ‘buppy’ (‘black upwardly mobile professional’ – the equivalent of ‘yuppie’) identity. His father is ‘Junebug’ a more ‘down home’ name for a performer who is something of a ‘gadfly’ with barbed attacks on white society for his predominantly black audience.

The other name change comes with Sloan’s brother, ‘Big Blak Afrika’ who explains that he is not ‘Julius’ any more. His exchange with Sloan explains the whole business of dispensing with ‘slave names’ that began with the Black Muslims in the 1950s. Sloan and Julius both carry the name ‘Hopkins’. This is one of the oldest names in American history, traceable back to a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and one of the first families of settlers in Massachusetts.

In a satire, we can expect that few characters will be ‘sympathetic’ in the usual sense. Some will be clearly misguided or villainous, others will be dupes in the exaggerated story. Thus Pierre’s mother, an otherwise ‘real’ character, represents the over protective mother who is ‘disappointed’ in her son. In Bamboozled, the most seemingly sane and rational character is Sloan – does she in some way represent us, the audience? In the end, she too is implicated in the madness.

“[Jada’s] really the conscience of the film, the character the audience feels for. And despite that, her hands are bloody too, as are Delacroix’s. Everybody’s bloody in the film, everybody’s in cahoots, and she knew about it from the beginning, but like everyone else in the film, she wants to see how it’s going to work out.” (Spike Lee in Fuchs, 2000)

Because the aim of satire is ridicule, we can’t expect a satirical film to conform to narrative conventions as such. The ending of Bamboozled is rushed and ‘over the top’ (‘melodramatic’ perhaps – this particular satire draws on family melodrama for some of its effects). By contrast, the coda – the compilation of clips from Hollywood films and television shows – is given more prominence than usual and earlier narrative sequences, such as the audition scenes for the minstrel show, are given extended coverage when conventionally they would be presented in a montage. Lee’s main purpose is to expose and ridicule, not to tell a conventionally ‘satisfying’ tale.

The major problem with satire for audiences is a tendency towards incoherence. This comes from the lack of conventional narrative structure and from the ‘scattergun effect’ of raising a wide range of issues, none of which will be ‘resolved’ as such. Lee’s aim is to make audiences think, to carry on the debate outside the cinema, rather than to feel that there is a ‘right’ answer.

“This film is really an exploration of the history of racism and misrepresentation of African Americans and people of color since the birth of film and television. This film shows how racism is woven into the very fabric of America: when you think of America, you think of Hollywood, and this wasn’t just D.W. Griffith. This was Al Jolson, and “wholesome” performers like Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Bing Crosby. It was like, the sky was blue, just accepted, an accepted view of black people.” (Lee in Fuchs op cit)

“I want people to think about the power of images, not just in terms of race, but how imagery is used and what sort of social impact it has – how it influences how we talk, how we think, how we view one another. In particular, I want them to see how film and television have historically, from the birth of both mediums, produced and perpetuated distorted images.” (Lee in Cineaste interview)

Bamboozled also emphasises its satirical roots through references to two earlier satires on American media. Spike Lee has discussed his own admiration for A Face in the Crowd (1957) written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. In this film an ‘Arkansas nobody’ becomes a major media star when his personality is promoted by television. His ego takes over and eventually he is found out. References to a later film, Network (1976), written by Paddy Chayevsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, are evident in the pilot minstrel show in Bamboozled when Manray/Mantan urges viewers to go to their windows and shout out that they are “not going to take it any more”. This is a direct reference to the newscaster played by Peter Finch who gains a huge television audience by becoming an evangelical figure: his ravings against the media are turned into high ratings by the network. Something similar (i.e. the cynical manipulation of the truth) is evident in the speeches made by Warren Beatty in the political satire Bulworth (1998).

The pilot minstrel show does seem to be more directly ‘political’ in content with Mantan’s rant referring to the problems of urban America and Womack pointedly referring to a gentler time when there were fewer problems and black people ‘knew their place’. This irony is much diminished in the later shows.

Whatever else we might think about the presentation of characters in Bamboozled, we can be sure that all the stereotypical characters are based on historical evidence. It may be difficult, and painful, to stomach, but Hollywood did create such representations.

The aesthetic of Bamboozled
Spike Lee and his cinematographer Ellen Kuras (a regular Lee collaborator and one of the very few women to succeed in Hollywood as a cinematographer) devised an approach to the ‘look’ of the film using digital video and Super 16. In fact, Ellen Kuras used several ‘mini-DV’ cameras working on the European PAL standard rather than American NTSC (since it gives a slightly higher resolution that is noticeable when blown up to 35mm for cinema projection.) Video is used throughout the film in all scenes except those depicting the stage performances, which are shot on film.

The deliberate move from one format to another might be seen as a ‘distancing’ device such as those associated with the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Such devices serve to break up the easy identification with characters or the flow of the narrative and ask audiences to question the way in which the narrative is being constructed. Lee uses a ‘Brechtian’ approach in several of his films. Other examples in Bamboozled might be the ‘fantasy’ moments such as Pierre thinking about slapping Dunwitty and later when the savings bank is animated.

There are several different ways to approach the choice between digital video and film. On the one hand, video might be thought appropriate for the ‘story’ scenes if they are being equated with the feel of ‘reality tv’ – handheld, grainy, muted colours with plenty of blue. Equally film might suit the ‘fantasy’ of performance. But the opposite could also be argued – film is an ironic medium to use for material that would be viewed as ‘live television’, but film would be the expected format for the fiction narrative of the ‘story’ scenes. This confusion adds to the distanciation effect. Ironically, also, ‘Super 16′ is a film format that uses the whole of the film area to record the image (i.e. sound must be recorded separately) and in the UK it is only used for shooting film for television.

In her contribution to the Cineaste symposium, Zeinabu Irene Davis points to the striking colour scheme in the film with blue the predominant colour in the cold ‘white’ scenes (the network offices, Pierre’s apartment etc.) and orange in the warmer ‘black’ scenes – Junebug’s performance, the focus on Da Bomb malt liquor. Davis points out that blue is a difficult colour to remove from digital images, but film allows the vibrant colours of the minstrel show, none more so than the deeply moving sequences in which Manray and Womack apply the burnt cork of ‘blackface’, finishing with the ‘fire truck red’ lipstick.

As a final comment on the technologies used, the budget for Bamboozled was $10 million. This is significantly more than might be available for a ‘black independent’ production, but only about 20% of the budget of a mainstream Hollywood feature. The film was eventually financed by New Line Cinema, a Time Warner company, so it is ‘independent’ in name only. Lee has criticised the company for its failure to distribute the film properly.

Music is crucial in Spike Lee’s films and in Bamboozled he worked for the ninth time with Terence Blanchard. The music performs two different functions. In the Stevie Wonder songs, the lyrics provide a direct commentary on the themes and issues of the film, whereas in Blanchard’s score, the music serves to add intensity to the emotional underpinning of key scenes.

The performances by the artistes at the audition are more problematic. The key performance is by the Mau Maus, all of whom were played by hip-hop performers from the more politically conscious end of the music. Lee wanted to present both the politics of rap and it’s excesses:

“I think their intentions are honorable but, but they’re misguided. I think a lot of this is because they don’t read. If you don’t read then you’re going to be ignorant, and you’re just going to be making up stuff as you go along. I like rap music, but I’m not a fan of a lot of gangsta rap. I think it’s obsessed with the ‘bling bling,’ with the gold chains and diamonds and Bentleys and all other trappings – you know, the titties and the butts shaking and jigging into the camera. I don’t think that’s uplifting, not at all. It’s all about massive amounts of consumption.” Spike Lee interview in Cineaste.

Spike Lee as auteur
Several references have already been made to Spike Lee’s output via his company ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks’. The company title refers to the (unfulfilled) promise made to freed slaves after the Civil War. In reality not only were blacks in the South not supported by the Federal government, but as already noted, the ‘Jim Crow’ laws reduced them to second-class citizens. Lee’s intent in controlling his own work is clear.
Bamboozled refers directly to several of Lee’s other films. The title itself comes from the term used by Malcolm X to describe the state of mind of black people in the 1950s (“to be deceived, confounded or mystified” is the dictionary definition of the word). Denzel Washington is seen in a clip from Lee’s 1992 film. The history of Southern institutionalised racism is explored in Lee’s critically acclaimed documentary Four Little Girls (1999), which investigates the death of the girls in a bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 during the Civil Rights struggle.

The most striking reference is to Do The Right Thing (1989). This was the film which brought Lee to a wide audience. It concentrates on an incident in the predominantly black neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York on the hottest day of the year. A confrontation begins when a politically conscious young man challenges the owner of the neighbourhood pizzeria over the the issue of the portraits of the ‘heroes’ on the walls of the pizza parlour. They are all Italian-Americans, but most of the customers are black. Why can’t the owner put up portraits of black heroes? He refuses and tension grows. Lee himself plays Mookie, the pizza delivery man – caught in the middle of the conflict. The film explores all the ethnic communities in the area and the different positions they take up.

In Bamboozled, Dunwitty has his office decorated with African-American sports stars in order to prove how ‘black’ he is. But he also smooths his hair and makes a reference to the Rev. Al Sharpton in exactly the same way as the racist son of the pizzeria owner in Do The Right Thing. Lee seems to be saying that the debate has moved on or become more complex. (In Do The Right Thing, the young man who calls for portraits of the ‘brothers’ is clearly right to be asking the question, but is shown to be inept in political strategy – Dunwitty is a target for satire). Lee himself does not appear in Bamboozled. Does he place himself outside the arguments? He is clearly implicated in the issues. D’Arcy (2001) suggests that Lee is a collector of ‘black Americana’ and that some of the figurines that decorate Pierre’s apartment are from Lee’s own collection. Lee would argue that preserving such artefacts is important in keeping the evidence of what happened in front of people. But how does he refute the charge that in promoting his own brand of ‘designer clothing’ he is as culpable as ‘Tommy Hilnigger’ of being an entrepreneur in league with corporate white America in separating urban black youth from their money? The issues are complex and, again, Lee would argue that by earning the money to give him the freedom to make the films he wants, his commercial ventures are ultimately subsidising more important political and cultural work.

Ideas and values: Lee and his critics
Bamboozled was not a box-office success and it attracted plenty of negative reviews to put alongside some glowing endorsements. Almost all critics are agreed on one point. There are possibly too many ideas to fit in one film. The issues are complex and can’t be contained within a single narrative. Lee’s strategy of playing the film as a satire and therefore presenting ‘broad brush’ characters in a didactic and ultimately melodramatic mode then divides the audience. Those who are happy with the satirical mode find the film invigorating and important in stirring up a debate that should be heard. The detractors feel that it simply means that the film is incoherent – a mess.

Lee’s most consistent critic has been Armond White of the alternative weekly New York Press. White sees Lee as making ‘big budget agit-prop’ movies that please the ‘white liberal press’ and take up the space that might be used by more radical and more important black filmmakers such as Charles Burnett (see below). More acutely, White asks whether or not Lee is patronising his audience in not recognising the sophistication with which black audiences read contemporary images and also in not considering how audiences ‘read’ such images in the 1930s.

White’s attack is important and it is supported by Ray Carney, an academic at Boston University:

The presence of racially- or sexually-based characters, settings, and references is no guarantee of minority imaginative content, in this sense, and is in fact irrelevant to it. That is why Spike Lee’s films can be judged to be far more mainstream, middle-class, middlebrow, and ‘Hollywood’ in their point of view than Cassavetes’. While Lee merely recycles standard Hollywood melodramatic conflicts, formulas, and clichés (in Minstrel Blackface, as it were -suburban, Yuppified versions of Cabin in the Sky [a Hollywood musical with an all-black cast, made in 1943]), the stylistic experiences of Cassavetes’ or Burnett’s works provide the viewer with the opportunity to participate imaginatively in truly alien and unconventional forms of knowledge. (Carney 1994)

Carney is writing about the New York independent filmmaker John Cassavettes, but again he mentions Charles Burnett. Burnett is a genuine independent filmmaker who works on miniscule budgets and has produced a handful of films over a twenty year period. Only two of Burnett’s films have been released in the UK, the most recent being a family melodrama set in Los Angeles, To Sleep With Anger (1990). Burnett’s films are characterised by the absence of stereotypical black characters and a much more realist presentation. It is this realism that is seen as radical given that other black films (Lee’s included) are seemingly pre-occupied with violence, drugs and popular entertainment.

Questions for discussion

1. Is Bamboozled a ‘radical film’?
2. Pierre Delacroix is the leading character in Bamboozled. What kind of a journey does he take in terms of understanding black representations?
3. What is Spike Lee suggesting in the way in which he tells the story of Manray/Mantan and Womack/Sleep ‘n Eat?
4. Are the criticisms of Spike Lee justified in presenting him as a middle-class African-American filmmaker who takes the focus of attention away from more radical black filmmakers?

References and further reading
Don Bogle (1992) Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, New York: Continuum
Ray Carney (1994) The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism,
Modernism, and the Movies
, New York and London: Cambridge University Press
Cineaste Vol XXVI No 2 features a Spike Lee interview and a critical symposium on the film.
David D’Arcy (2000), ‘Black market’, Guardian March 30
John Kisch and Edward Mapp (1992) A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black Cast Posters, New York: Noonday Press
Cynthia Fuchs (2000) interview with Spike Lee on

Tsotsi (South Africa/UK 2005) – A narrative analysis

Butcher and Aap with Fela – the wounded Boston is in the background

Butcher and Aap with Fela – the wounded Boston is in the background

(Spoilers ahead! Like the earlier post on Hero, these notes are from a student event with a full screening of the film. The detailed notes here give away important plot details.)

We chose this film as a case study based on five related points, which we explore below:

  • a narrative produced outside Hollywood;
  • a simple narrative structure, but powerfully affective;
  • a consistent approach to the presentation of a specific environment, involving stylised cinematography and music;
  • questions about the narrative resolution;
  • a series of questions about genre and categorisation.

Narratives outside Hollywood
Everyone is familiar with the conventions of the Hollywood film narrative. This isn’t a reason not to study Hollywood – or to take the conventions for granted. Hollywood, as befits the dominant institution in cinema across the world, is highly dynamic and constantly evolving in terms of film narrative. However, it is often difficult to analyse the films you know best. It helps to have some distance from the films we study and one way to do this is to study some films that are ‘not Hollywood’ in order to make comparisons. Often by comparing and contrasting similar films from different systems we notice much more about them than if we looked at only one system.

Tsotsi is in every way a South African story – even though the film is technically a South Africa/UK production, because some of the production finance is from the UK. (Tsotsi was made on a very small budget of less than US $3 million. Currently the worldwide box office for the film is $9.9 million.) In many ways, Tsotsi is a new kind of South African film, because it is a mainstream film that has been seen around the world (it won the Oscar for ‘Best Foreign Language Picture’ at the 2006 Academy Awards). Previously, important South African stories have been made in the country by British and American producers using British and American stars, often producing films which, apart from the setting, look much like other Hollywood films.

South Africa: Background
The Republic of South Africa is unique on the continent of Africa in terms of its history, its population and its culture. The original inhabitants were largely driven out by the arrival of various groups of people speaking a variety of languages often referred to generically as ‘Bantu’ around the 5th century AD. It’s quite important to realise that southern Africa has always been a region with a diverse population – black South Africans today identify themselves as belonging to one of several ethnic and language groups, such as the Zulu of North Eastern South Africa around Johannesburg and the Xhosa in the South West around Cape Town.

From the 15th century onwards, Southern Africa became the site of colonial and later imperial struggle to exploit the rich agricultural and mineral wealth of the region. The British eventually replaced the Dutch as colonial masters, but not in terms of settlement. When South Africa became an independent nation it was the Afrikaans speaking descendants of the Dutch settlers who were the political majority in the white community and through the creation of apartheid or ‘separate development’, dominated the majority black population. But because of the history of colonial exploitation, South Africa’s population is even more diverse than this history might suggest. The Dutch and the British brought first slaves and then indentured labour (a form of economic slavery) to South Africa from what is now Indonesia and India. In the Cape Region, the intermarriage of slaves and European settlers created a community of what became known in South Africa as ‘Cape Coloureds’. When apartheid ended in 1994 and South Africa held its first multi-racial elections, it became in the new President Mandela’s words, “A Rainbow Nation”. Today South Africa has a population of 47 million. The various black communities make up around 79% of the population, followed by the white community, the Cape Coloureds and the Indian/Asian communities.

Economy and the townships
South Africa is the richest country in Africa, but even after ten years of democracy, it still has massive inequalities in wealth distribution. In blunt terms, there is a rich minority with living standards comparable with North America and Western Europe and a large majority existing on very low incomes. This division is reflected in visible terms by the peculiar building arrangements in South African cities. One of the legacies of apartheid is the concept of the township/shanty town/squatter camp. In the apartheid era, the black population was ‘kept separate’ from the white cities, so that makeshift settlements grew up to house black workers outside the major cities. These became known as townships. The situation was made worse by another apartheid policy which forced black Africans to live in what were called ‘homelands‘ by the white government and ‘bantustans‘ by their opponents. Black South Africans could only own land in the homelands. Since this was the poorest agricultural land, many were forced to live in temporary buildings on the edge of the city where there might be work. The apartheid government also shipped in migrant workers from other countries to work in mining and other industries. These workers too would be housed outside the cities. The result of these policies was the piecemeal development of collections of townships. The most famous of these is Soweto (South Western Township), a huge sprawl of many smaller townships on the edge of Johannesburg which has grown over a period a hundred years and which may now be bigger than the rest of the city with more than 1 million residents. This is the setting for Tsotsi. The film’s three locations are representative of the three areas in Johannesburg – the city centre, the ‘squatter camp’ (one of the least developed township areas) and the suburbs (once white enclaves, now also home to the black middle class). (see for the history of Soweto’s development as a home for Johannesburg’s black population.)

Township life
Because of the history outlined above, township culture has developed in distinctive ways. In the first half of the 20th century, men outnumbered women 3:1 since they were primarily workers who had left families behind and were accommodated in hostels. There were few civic amenities in the townships and social life was based on the beer hall or shabeen. Men outnumbering women generally means organised prostitution and high crime levels. But the culture also developed positive aspects, including a vibrant musical culture, combining traditional music with imported black music styles from America. Initially the influences were jazz but now it is likely to be hip-hop. Tsotsi uses the current township music culture, known as kwaito throughout the film. One of the main characters is played by Zola, a leading kwaito performer.

Besides crime and music, the main way in which township residents have become famous is via sport, especially football, and the political struggle against apartheid. Not surprisingly, several South African novels, plays and films have focused on township life as the basis for their stories. Outside South Africa, the best known of these have been written by white South African liberals, sympathetic to the residents. The two best known writers in the UK are Alan Paton and Athol Fugard.

Alan Paton (1903-1988) was a Christian who became a teacher and then principal of a Reform School where he instigated progressive policies. In 1953 he founded the South African Liberal Party – a multi-racial party that was later banned by the apartheid regime. In 1948 he wrote his most famous novel, Cry The Beloved Country. This was made into a British/South African film in 1951, starring the African-American actors Canada Lee and Sidney Poitier and then a South African/US film in 1995 starring James Earl Jones.

Athol Fugard (b 1932) is a South African playwright who in the 1970s wrote several plays attacking the injustices of apartheid. One of these, Boesman and Lena, was adapted as a film in 1974 and seen around the world. Another, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (1972) was performed in several countries. Tsotsi is based on a novel that Athol Fugard wrote in 1970, which has been updated to relate to a post-apartheid South Africa.

The South African film industry
Tsotsi is a relatively unusual film. Putting aside the small UK involvement, it is a South African film, made by South African talent, for both the home market and for export. It is one of a small number of such films released in the last couple of years, marking a change in South African filmmaking.

In the past, filmmaking in South Africa has been split into three separate activities. Because of its range of locations and good infrastructure, South Africa has been used by many Hollywood and ‘international films’ to stand in for other parts of Africa. In such cases, directors and stars have been flown into the country and this has happened even when the story has been distinctively South African. The film Red Dust (UK/South Africa 2004) dealt with the aftermath of apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, yet the two stars, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Hilary Swank were brought in from the UK and the US.

There has always been a small-scale white South African film industry, often making local comedies and not usually exported. There has also in the past been an ‘exploitation’ film industry making films cheaply to be shown in the townships. This practice was supported with some funding by the apartheid government for a separate black cinema culture. The legacy of apartheid in terms of cinema has been a weak local industry, almost totally subservient to Hollywood. Despite having more cinemas and more admissions than anywhere else in Africa, the South African industry had little real success at home until Tsotsi. Most South African audiences have traditionally preferred Hollywood films.

Narrative Structure
There are various ways of thinking about Tsotsi as a film narrative. In structural terms it is quite straightforward. Writer-director Gavin Hood even says on the DVD that it is a ‘simple’ narrative. Apart from the flashback memories of his childhood that Tsotsi himself experiences early in the film, the narrative structure is linear in terms of time. Everything takes place over four nights. There are brief sequences dealing with the investigation of the abduction of the baby by the police and Boston’s recuperation at the shabeen, but most of the time Tsotsi himself drives the narrative forward.

There are three ‘environments’ in the film and the story moves between the three. They are:

  • the township
  • the city centre (or rather the railway station and its immediate environs)
  • the suburb

Questions of colour, cinematography etc.
The most striking feature of the film is what we might call the ‘colour palette’ with which the cinematographer is working. Most scenes take place either at night or in what appears to be a rosy glow of early morning or early evening. Few scenes are shot in the bright sunlight of mid-day. Shooting at night is always difficult and creating a coherent look for the film across the different environments and natural lighting conditions was the main aim. Tsotsi was featured in an article for American Cinematographer magazine (see Bosley 2006) so we have some good ideas about what was intended and how the effects were achieved.

An expressionist image using lighting to emphasise the state of Tostsi with the baby in his shack.

An expressionist image using lighting to emphasise the state of Tsotsi with the baby in his shack.

Director Gavin Hood believed that Tsotsi was essentially an ‘internal story’. Although there are several action sequences, the real story is inside Tsotsi’s head. Ideally we should study Tsotsi and understand how he is beginning to change over the course of the story.

Hood and his cinematographer Lance Gewer began with one clear idea. They would not use the hand-held style which had been so successful in the worldwide hit that was City of God (Brazil 2002). In that film, hand-held camerawork and fast cutting was an important element in creating an action-packed gangster film. But it wouldn’t be appropriate for Tsotsi. Instead, Hood and Gewer opted for a fairly static camera, carefully framed and lit scenes in which a relatively small and slow zoom in to Tsotsi’s face could communicate agreat deal about what is going on in his head.

Narrative resolution
Tsotsi is a film that ends hanging in mid air. In the version that was shown in cinemas, Tsotsi is holding is arms raised with the three policemen all aiming their guns at him. What happens next? Does Tsotsi surrender? Is his surrender accepted? Or do the police shoot him? It is a tense situation in which anything might happen. The filmmakers chose this open ending partly because they liked the possibility of audiences leaving the cinema discussing what the ending meant and what should happen to Tsotsi and partly because they had received negative reactions to the other two possibilities that a closed ending would have offered.

All three potential endings are shown and discussed by the director on the DVD. Having the police shoot and kill Tsotsi (after he puts his hand in his pocket to bring out the bottle of milk) was thought by some audiences to be too predictable (which might reflect on the status of the police in South Africa), but by others to be emotionally devastating. If an audience invests heavily in a character, especially one who attempts to redeem himself, then the death of the character comes as a blow.

The second alternative ending is that the police shoot, but Tsotsi is only wounded. The police seem surprised/shocked that someone has actually fired and in that split second, Tsotsi regains his composure and runs for the wall at the side of the road. He vaults over the wall and heads off across the field, heading for the township. This is the sentimental, romantic ending with the implication that he finds Miriam. But, like the ending in which Tsotsi is killed, the filmmakers felt that this was too ‘pat’ – it meant that there would be no discussion of what should or shouldn’t happen.

Whatever sense audiences make of Tsotsi, it will to some extent depend on how they approach the film. This refers to the concept of categorising or classifying films and, based upon the choice of category, developing expectations of what might happen and how it might be presented. Tsotsi is interesting because it doesn’t clearly suggest any single category. Here are some ideas about how audiences might categorise it or select its genre.

1. foreign language flm
Tsotsi includes dialogue in Zulu and Xhosa as well as Afrikaans and English (in fact most of the film is conducted in a form of criminal slang). Most of the film is subtitled. In the UK, many audiences claim not to enjoy subtitled films. This may be because they find reading subtitles tiring or because they feel they are missing something else while they are reading. But it is also possible that they may be reacting against what they see as the ‘otherness’ – the strangeness – of non-English language cinema. Partly, they may also associate any subtitled film with the notion of ‘art cinema’ – i.e. that the film will be in some way ‘difficult’ or ‘pretentious’ and may offer a character study more than a good story/plot and action. In many cases they will be justified in this view. Tsotsi is in some ways a character study more than a plot-driven action entertainment feature. However, it certainly isn’t a difficult film.

2. drama
One of the important points about genre as a concept is that the term is used differently by the film industry, audiences, critics and scholars and that each of these groups will themselves use different terms to describe a particular category. On the whole, the film industry uses very broad terms such as comedy, thriller or drama. In fact these are just about the only terms that the industry is happy to use (apart from ‘horror’, which is usually reserved for use with younger audiences). The industry itself is wary of putting any potential audience off by referring to popular genre categories such as science fiction, romance etc. They fear that such terms will deter some audiences. Science fiction films sometimes become ‘futuristic dramas’ and romances become ‘romantic dramas’. What does ‘drama’ mean in these circumstances? Perhaps it simply serves to distinguish one group of films from another group – comedies. Dramas are in some way ‘serious’. Although, of course, you will come across ‘comedy-dramas’. Tsotsi is described as a ‘riveting drama’ on the DVD cover, but there are no other pointers to its generic status.

3. adaptation
Tsotsi is certainly ‘serious’ in terms of its overall tone and the importance of the social issues it represents. For some audiences, that seriousness will be a kind of status indicator and it may well be associated with the knowledge that the film is based on a novel by a well known playwright. Both literature and theatre have higher cultural status than cinema amongst certain groups in society and a film which has literary roots automatically draws on this status. For other audiences this link might be a disadvantage if they see the film as being ‘stifled’ or restricted by its origins. If we can think about the original author’s intentions without getting bothered about cultural status it could help us in analysing the film’s narrative to think about how the story is constructed in almost theatrical terms.

It wouldn’t be difficult to stage Tsotsi as a play. Most of the action takes place in distinctive settings which work as theatrical spaces: Tsotsi’s shack/Miriam’s shack, the shabeen, the train station/underpass, the suburb. There is little use of traditional cinematic devices such as the ‘chase’ which would be difficult to stage. Also the confrontations between characters are also theatrical in terms of dialogue exchange and posed/tableau positioning of actors.

4. gangster film
The gangster film is a popular form in cinemas across the world, not just in Hollywood films but in films made in Britain, France, Italy, Hong Kong etc. Tsotsi makes clear references to the gangster repertoire with the ‘set-up’ of the attack at the beginning of the film, the squabbling between the gang members, each of whom is typed for easy identification. The development of the story to include a gang leader whose actions are curtailed or re-directed because of a woman (a woman of his own age and/or a mother figure) is also a familiar aspect of the gangster film. However, although the gangster genre may provide many of the elements in the mix, it doesn’t tell the full story and it will be more useful to see Tsotsi as mixing the gangster genre elements with those of the youth picture.

5. youth picture/coming of age drama
Many films can be studied in terms of their focus on youth. Clearly the interest in producing youth films is related to the importance of this age group in the cinema audience. There is no strict definition of what ‘youth’ means in terms of age groups. At its widest, it might refer to anyone aged 13-24. Tsotsi and his gang are perhaps in their early 20s. The narrative of the youth picture will have several distinctive features:

• some sense of rebellion and dismissal of the ‘adult’ world;
• a short story time – the events will take place over a few days or a few weeks;
• at the end of the film, the main character will usually have learned something about themselves.

Do these elements figure in Tsotsi? The focus of a youth picture narrative will either be something to do with achievement in exams, a job etc. or in a romantic/sexual relationship. Especially in the latter case, this might make the youth picture a ‘coming of age’ story in which the central character is seen to ‘grow up’ in some way.

At the beginning of the film, Tsotsi and Miriam pass each other in the crowded streets of the township.

At the beginning of the film, Tsotsi and Miriam pass each other in the crowded streets of the township.

6. township film
In most countries there are some stories and some film genres which are peculiar to that country (i.e. they are not universal like the romance or the comedy). We could argue that there have been several films in the past that might be described as ‘township dramas’. These films were all set in the South African townships with stories that depended on some of the unique characteristics of township life. From the 1940s through to the late 1980s, such stories also depended on the conditions of apartheid which affected every aspect of South African life – most importantly in governing where people could live, how they could travel etc. With the end of apartheid, some aspects of township life have changed. It might, however, be useful to think about Tsotsi as a kind of township film in the post-apartheid era. The few township films seen in the UK include the original Cry the Beloved Country, aspects of Cry Freedom (UK 1987) and Mapantsula (South Africa 1988)

Reading a film case study: the opening to Tsotsi
Whatever the film chosen, students are likely to analyse a short sequence (around 5-7 minutes is about the right length). They should choose the sequence because it plays a significant role in the narrative structure. This is likely to be:

• the opening
• a sequence which marks a shift in direction, a ‘turning point’ in the narrative
• the closing sequence

The opening to Tsotsi (roughly 5 mins up until the gang leave the train and their victim) performs various tasks which serve to get the narrative started. The first images are close-ups of the craps game with a hand shaking, dice falling on a battered table top, Butcher’s makeshift weapon tapping and cigarette smoke. It is a few moments until we are offered a wide shot allowing us to see that the game is taking place in Tsotsi’s shack while he looks out of the window. This first composition with the four young men together will be repeated in different ways throughout the sequence.

The craps game has a double purpose in the narrative. This is a standard ploy in constructing a filmic narrative. First, the game has a narrative function in setting up characters and suggesting what kind of story might develop. Second, it offers a different kind of meaning that we could describe as metaphorical or symbolic.

The game introduces the characters quickly and effectively. Aap and Butcher are the players, Aap is certainly typed as the overweight, slightly naive but friendly character up against Butcher who is shown to either cheat or to be innumerate. Either way he is angry and impatient and the tapping of the weapon is a disturbing omen. Boston is similarly typed as the educated onlooker, possibly slightly older. (He reads the paper, he can follow the game without having to concentrate.) Tsotsi at this point is simply ‘apart’ from the others, looking out of the window. There are tensions between the four group members and Butcher is clearly the most provocative of the four. Although he doesn’t say anything, Tsotsi’s physical position and outward look (i.e. away from the game) is significant. But the craps game is also a useful cultural referent. Who plays craps and why? The Wikipedia definition of craps suggests that it is a casino game that can also be played in any setting where men are gathered. In Hollywood movies it is a game often played by soldiers or by petty crooks, both groups wanting something to pass the time between the ‘action’ of combat or crime. In a wider context, the image of young men gambling in this way suggests possibly unemployment, disaffection etc. The other cultural referents in the scene confirm a specific millieu with marijuana on a torn sheet of newspaper, a beer bottle, a footbal team poster on the wall etc. This is the room of a young man.

The second type of meaning is metaphorical/symbolic and refers to life as a gamble. Throwing dice can be seen as an approach to decision-making – “let’s see what the dice say”. Alternatively, it could refer to the philosophical position of accepting the consequences of someone else rolling the dice – having to live with whatever the result might be. In either case, the dice game offers the narrative a thematic.

Of course, these opening images are accompanied by two other elements: the credits and the use of sound, both the voices of the characters and the music track. The credits are ‘external’ to the fictional world of the film (non-diegetic), but they still offer some clues to the narrative, especially in the presentation of the film’s title. ‘Tsotsi’ is written in a style of calligraphy/typography suggesting the makeshift, the ersatz, possibly the essence of the township. The individual letters were probably typed or printed, but they are of different sizes and weights and they look battered and worn. Together they symbolise the culture rather than directly referring to it. The other noticeable feature of the credits is the light that flickers across the screen, possibly resembling flickering oil lamps and firelight.

The graphics and the image help to introduce the location as a township, but to pin down the locale, we need the language and the music. The characters speak in a mixture of languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and English. This mixture is common in many urban areas in the world, but this particular mixture is quite precise and the South African setting is confirmed by the music, the style known as kwaito. Although the rhythm and the overall style of the music is drawn from US and British black music styles (which in their origin are mostly West African), the vocal style of kwaito utilises the uniquely melodic sound of Southern Africa. Like the credits, the kwaito music is non-diegetic. Before we leave this opening scene, we should also note that the sound effects, Butcher’s tapping the rattle of the dice etc. are important in creating some of the tension – much as the smoke rising from Butcher’s cigarette. Buried much lower in the sound mix are the ambient sounds of township life – the low murmur of people on the streets outside, some dogs barking etc. This provides atmosphere and confirms the realist elements of the film’s presentation. But there is also an odd element in the sound mix – two rumbling, rushing sounds, which accompany the throwing of the dice and their landing on the table. We could explain these as rumbles of thunder or other ‘outside’ sounds, but they function in the sequence in conjunction with a visual special effect – the slow motion footage of the dice in flight.

The music doesn’t kick in until Tsotsi turns to answer the question about what the gang will do tonight. Tsotsi’s turn leaves him framed by the evening light coming through the window. Lighting is very important in the film. In this sequence it is early evening and the township is bathed in a pinkish glow. Again this is functional and symbolic. The glow as the sun sinks indicates evening (or dawn, the time for other scenes later on) and there is a ‘realist’ explanation for the hazy/misty atmosphere. There is no electricity in the township and many people in the shacks light cooking fires and oil lamps at this time, so the air is always thick. But the overall effect is certainly theatrical – it is rather like the lighting effect in a stage play, especially when it is coupled with the use of small key lamps which direct light onto the faces of the actors and create a kind of ‘halo’ effect.

When the gang leave Tsotsi’s shack (which is unusual in being raised above the others, the camera style changes. In the first part of the sequence, it was mostly medium close-ups and close-ups. Now the camera tracks the four as they make their way through the township. There is a variety of shots using a crane and a steadicam. The crane shot will be repeated several times. First it shows long shots of the township (note that Miriam is the first in the queue of women getting water from the standpipe). Next it shows the train approaching the city centre, then the platform to show the arrival of the train with the gang aboard and then the main hall of the station, tilting up sufficiently to allow us to read the large poster which announces that ‘We are all affected by HIV and AIDS’. Again we can read this use of the camera as being both functional and symbolic. It is an economical way of presenting the important locations of the township and the station, both of which are scenes of action and now we have a better sense of their geography. (In the township, the camera also tarcks past the shabeen with a jeering Fela and his gang). The reference to HIV/AIDS is important as it is otherwise not mentioned, despite its central presence in the lives of township dwellers. Did Tsotsi’s mother die of HIV/AIDS? Coupled with the crane shots are various tracking shots – a moving camera follows the gang, sometimes from a low angle and from the front. This makes them appear quite heroic as if marching off to battle. Tsotsi is picked out for close-ups as the leader. When he gives the finger (a borrowed American/European insult?) to Fela, the camera offers us a subjective view of the shabeen (i.e. Tsotsi’s view). Overall, this part of the sequence, which takes the gang to the station, is marked by movement and a flowing camera style – in contrast to the static composition in the shack. As well as Miriam, Morris in his wheelchair is also in this sequence. The crane/long shot will be repeated a little later with a view across the wasteland that separates the township from the suburb – the other main location for the action.

In a symbolic sense, the camerawork also establishes that the gang can move through the township and the station as if these are areas that it controls – or at least feels at home in (in contrast to the suburbs). The city centre remain on the horizon, almost like a ‘magic kingdom’ from which the gang are excluded. Later, Tsotsi will sit on the hill outside the city pondering his future. This is a very common image, but nonetheless effective.

The next part of the sequence is clearly ‘generic’ in referring to the crime film. We know that a crime is about to take place and it is quickly established by the camera following the swift looks that Tsotsi gives to possible ‘marks’. These are emphasised by whip pans or flashes as Tsotsi turns his attention to someone else. In each case, the possible marks are shown in mid-shot or framed between other figures in the crowd – there are no wide shots, so we are forced to connect, the close-ups of Tsotsi’s face and the images of the marks. When the victim is identified, the camera moves closer to show his transaction with the stallholder and finally the wage packet that he pulls out in order to pay for his purchases. The camerawork and editing are interesting here in showing us that the other gang members are following Tsotsi’s looks and in isolating the figures involved in the final selection by using shallow focus. (This disguises a move from the main hall to the platform, which is obscured by the out of focus background.) Nothing is said in the sequence, but we know precisely what is going on, simply through the use of camera and editing.

The gang aboard the train in the opening sequence.

The gang aboard the train in the opening sequence.

At this point it is worth mentioning costume and casting, both important in setting up our feelings towards the crime and towards the gang. In the township we weren’t particularly aware of the four gang members as being distinctive, partly because we didn’t see them in a crowd. Now we recognise that compared to their victim and many others in the station, they are actually quite small in stature, especially Tsotsi. By making the victim both tall and well-built, the stature of the gang members is highlighted. But the victim is also presented as a friendly, trusting man – someone who has possibly just bought a present for a wife or daughter as well as a tie for himself. He has a pleasant exchange with the young Asian woman on the stall and when the gang surround him on the train, he at first looks down on them with an almost avuncular gaze. We have two contrasting ideas here. The gang appear, once in the city, as poor and downtrodden and possibly worthy of our sympathy, but their attack is made to feel even worse by the humanity of the man they select as a victim.

When Butcher effectively skewers the man it is a shocking moment. Had Tsotsi intended that the man should die? Was it an accident? Or is Butcher a psychopath who enjoys killing? Like many narratives, Tsotsi attempts to set up an important question in its forst five minutes and almost on cue it does it with the killing. We have spent five minutes getting to know these characters – what have we let ouselves in for? What kind of story will follow?

Like the scenes in the main hall of the station, most of the scenes in the train are framed in mid-shot or medium close-up. The action moves quickly and the soundtrack again uses ambient sound and what might be sound effects to emphasise the way Tsotsi homes in on the victim. The final shot in the sequence is a wider shot of the empty carriage with the body on the floor. This is both a symbolic corpse – an unnecessary death to haunt Tsotsi – and another indicator of the realism of a story set in a country with one of the worst records for violent crime in the world.

The opening sequence ends here, having established the characters of the four gang members and introduced the ‘inciting incident’ as some theorists call it. The killing acts to set off a chain of events, beginning in the shabeen where Boston’s disgust pushes Tsotsi into an outburst.

References and Further Reading
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (1997, 5th edition) Film Art, London and New York: McGraw Hill
Rachel K. Boswell (2006) ‘An Angry Young Man’ in American Cinematographer, March
(Available online at
Gill Branston and Roy Stafford (2006, 4th ed) The Media Student’s Book, London: Routledge
Athol Fugard (2006) Tsotsi, Canongate Press (re-issue of the original novel)
Nick Lacey (1998) Image and Representation, London: Macmillan
Nick Lacey (2000) Narrative and Genre, London: Macmillan
Nick Lacey (2005) Introduction to Film, Basingstoke: Palgrave
Geoffrey Macnab (2006) Review of Tsotsi, Sight and Sound, April


Essay or discussion questions on Tsotsi

1. How do you relate to Tsotsi as a character? Does your attitude towards him change over the course of the narrative?

2. What do you make of the ending of the film? Do you like being given the opportunity to decide what should happen to him or would you rather be given a clear indication?

3. The presence of Boston, ‘the teacher’, in the gang is not properly explained in the film, but he performs an important role in driving Tsotsi into action. More background on this is given in the deleted scene on the DVD. Do you think the director was right to cut this scene? What difference would its inclusion make?

4. Tsotsi has been seen around the world and it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture in 2006. As a consequence of this exposure, Presley Chweneyagae who plays Tsotsi has become a star in South Africa. What kinds of star qualities do you think he has and which aspects of his performance make his portrayal of Tsotsi so compelling?

5. Terry Pheto, who plays Miriam, is the other potential star performer in the film. Miriam is a difficult role to play since women in South African society (and also in South African cinema) are at best marginalised. What kind of woman is Terry Pheto able to represent in Tsotsi and how would you explain the character’s actions in the film?

6. Various categories or genres are suggested as possible for Tsotsi in these notes. Which of them do you find most useful? How did you approach the film? Which other films have you seen which are in some way comparable with Tsotsi?

7. To what extent do you think Tsotsi is a ‘realist’ film, depicting life in the townships today? Which scenes would you pick out as being less ‘realist’ and more like a stage play, with exaggerated use of colour and setting?

8. If we consider the film to be more about symbolism and metaphor, a common theme running throughout the film is about ‘parenting’. Can you list all the ‘real’ and ‘symbolic’ mothers, fathers and children in the film? What might the film be saying about families?

9. The narrative focuses almost completely on the story of Tsotsi. Even so, there are ideas expressed about the current state of South African society in a broader sense. Think about the interaction between the police, the middle class suburban couple and the people in the townships. What do these interactions suggest about contemporary South Africa?

10. As well as being about South Africa, the story in Tsotsi also has ‘universal elements’ which could be utilised in a film set anywhere in the world. How would you identify these universal elements and how would you use them in a film made in the UK or anywhere else that you know?

11. The tragedy of HIV/AIDS is there in the background of Tsotsi and, although not explicitly stated, it seems likely that it killed Tsotsi’s mother. Why do you think the filmmakers kept it so far in the background? How would the story change if HIV/AIDS came into the foreground?

12. There is no obvious ‘villain’ in the story of Tsotsi – i.e. in the form of a single character. Without such a character how does the film handle the development of conflict and the final climax in the narrative?

What is melodrama?

In response to our regular contributor, Srikanth, who asked us to explain what we mean by melodrama on this blog, I’ve dug out some old notes and dusted them down (See Srikanth’s comment on the posting for The Lady of Musashino). I hope they go some way to explaining why film scholars adopt a rather different view on melodrama compared to film reviewers. The notes were first written in 1998 for a project focusing on three melodramas, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul (West Germany 1974) Jane Campion’s The Piano (France/Australia/NZ 1994) and Udayan Prasad’s My Son the Fanatic (UK/France 1997). The opening sections of these notes follow a brief intro below:


‘Melodrama’ is used on this blog to refer to an ‘open’ category of films that might include a large number of what reviewers refer to as ‘dramas’, ‘romances’, ‘thrillers’ etc. (In the left-hand sidebar on this blog, ‘Melodrama’ is one of the largest categories.) The genre repertoire we envisage is both porous and fluid – accepting elements from other repertoires and itself overflowing into them. This open quality is problematic for reviewers and most audiences. It is also a problem that definitions of melodrama within the film industry have changed over time so that in some ways, melodrama now means the opposite to what it once meant. In the Hollywood of the 1930s, melodrama could be used to describe action films, but now it usually refers to ‘relationship films’.

Why is film studies interested in melodrama?

Besides its fluidity, melodrama has been an important subject for film and media Studies for three main reasons.

1. Melodrama has always been primarily concerned with ‘popular culture’. Although the subject matter may sometimes be the lives of the rich and sophisticated, the appeal has always been to the widest possible audience. The modern offspring of melodrama includes both the disaster film like Titanic and television soap operas like EastEnders and Coronation Street or, in global terms, telenovelas such as Betty la fea (Ugly Betty). This concentration on the popular suited the polemical nature of film and media studies when it was establishing itself against more traditional academic views of ‘high culture’.

2. Partly because of its popular appeal, melodrama has often been despised by critics – ‘melodramatic’ is seen as a term of abuse, whether it describes a dramatic scene in a film or our behaviour in real life. Definitely linked to this is the association of melodrama with feminine rather than masculine concerns.

Twentieth century critics have taught generations of students to equate popularity with debasement, emotionality with ineffectiveness, religiosity with fakery, domesticity with triviality, and all of these, implicitly, with womanly inferiority. (Jane Tompkins (1985), Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, quoted by Christine Gledhill (1987))

Melodramas are often mainly about women, very often written by women, and at certain times have been enjoyed by women to a much greater extent than by men. It is not surprising then that much of the 1970s work on film melodramas was undertaken by feminist writers, interested in reclaiming what they saw to be important works which had been neglected because of the assumption that ‘women’s films’ were less important. Fear Eats the Soul and The Piano are both films which have benefited from greater audience and critical attention because of the work of feminist critics like Laura Mulvey.

2. Melodramas deal in emotional conflict, much of it centred around family and sexual relationships. There are ‘male melodramas’ with men in central roles and, crucially, there are themes of racial and class conflict in a wide range of melodramas. All of the three main films addressed in this project have been chosen because of their potent mixture of race, class and gender conflicts. Because of this emotional powder keg at the centre of so many melodramas, it isn’t surprising that many critics have seized upon specific melodramas as providing examples of ‘sites of ideological struggle’ with the despised melodrama genre enabling filmmakers and audiences to pursue critiques of contemporary society via popular entertainment. This will be explored through work on the famous melodrama director Douglas Sirk in 1950s Hollywood and in some of the quite heated discussion over The Piano.

Melodrama and the modern audience

We will trace the roots of melodrama as a genre and look at examples of ‘pure’ melodramas from earlier periods of cinema. The films we have selected are not necessarily designed for a mass, popular audience –in fact, they have all tended to be screened in ‘art’ cinemas. How then, does this fit with our assertion that melodrama is about the popular? The most popular forms of ‘moving image culture’ in the 1990s, television soap operas and drama series, are certainly derived from melodramas, but they tend to promote narrative content ą the issues and human stories – over and above the performance and presentation of the stories –the formal or stylistic aspects. This is where television differs from cinema. Modern popular cinema on the other hand might be argued to be more about performance and presentation than about story – a return to the sense of spectacle which has always been an important aspect of cinema. Studying film melodrama might help us to make sense of this set of differences. Do we read and enjoy Titanic and EastEnders in the same way?

The Origins of Melodrama

The word ‘melodrama’ comes from the Greek melos = music and drama = action, presented as a performance. So, a melodrama is a drama with music – a definition which would cover most entertainment films that use music to invoke moods and to signal emotional themes or to heighten sensations such as fear or suspense. We clearly need to be much more precise. Let’s consider some of the roots of melodrama in theatre and literature.

Christine Gledhill, in her influential book Home is Where the Heart Is (1987), stresses the importance of the the links between melodrama and the bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century. In Britain and France, two or three theatres received royal patents granting them a monopoly over the performance of ‘official’ plays, which largely drew on a classical repertoire. These theatres, in which plays were defined by spoken dialogue, maintained the ‘standards’ and the ideas and values of the aristocratic elite. The growing urban audience, largely outside London and composed of the newly emerging ‘middle classes’ and the industrial working-class, demanded entertainment which was forced to draw on established ‘folk’ art and other popular entertainment traditions: ‘dumb show, pantomime, harlequinade, ballets, spectacles, acrobatics, clowning, busking, the exhibition of animals and freaks, and, above all, musical accompaniment and song’ (Gledhill 1987).

These popular forms fused into a new form of ‘illegitimate theatre’. The three main features of this new form, which will be relevant for our study of film melodramas, were spectacle, performance and music. You might wish to consider the extent to which these three features of popular entertainment are still capable of dividing audiences along class lines or between groups who argue about ‘serious meanings’ as against ‘pleasure’. How often are films criticised for presenting ‘only spectacle without substance’? Similarly, the rise of the star has provided a focus on performance away from ‘content’ or ‘message’. As we will note later, these same arguments can be applied outside Europe, especially where communities have been suppressed and have sought to express themselves through popular entertainment. What is carnival in Brazil and the Caribbean about if it isn’t spectacle, performance and music?

By the end of the eighteenth century, the illegitimate theatre had developed a sophisticated mise en scène – literally meaning the methods used to ‘put things into a scene’, to combine spectacle, performance and music to produce meaning. Later, we will see that the idea of a filmic mise en scène has been central to an understanding of film melodramas. In the nineteenth century, popular entertainment developed rapidly with the spread of the industrial revolution and the growth of urban centres. The illegitimate theatre gradually began to become accepted by the authorities and in the extraordinary turbulent period of change which constituted the nineteenth century, melodrama developed in relation to a range of different influences:

  • gothic fiction appeared in the mid eighteenth century and produced sensational stories about ‘good and evil’ which exaggerated the traditional conflicts of popular entertainments. The evil aristocrat who seduced the young servant girl was now in league with the devil. This genre which was revived towards the end of the nineteenth century with novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, can be seen as contributing to the climate of sensation and dramatic conflict which suited melodrama.
  • economic and social change were major features of life in the nineteenth century. Families moved from the country into towns. Women ‘went out’ to work in factories (work had nearly always been at home or on the farm before). Time, according to the clock, was a new factor in lives which had been governed by daylight and farm tasks. Most important, people travelled and met a much wider range of potential marriage partners. Travel broadened minds and broke down traditions. The establishment of colonies abroad and the prospect of emigration promised further escape routes and the chance of new experiences.
  • new ideas about the family. While working-class women were going to the factory, the married women of the emerging middle-classes were gaining freedom from work and seeking new roles in society. The Victorian period is remembered for its ideas about ‘respectability’ and ‘double standards’ with a consequent public morality which recognised the ‘fall’ from respectability to destitution and degeneracy. Victorian narratives can contain both dramatic rises and falls in social standing. Check out the novels of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins for stories of fortunes won and lost and of bequests and inheritances which could change people’s lives – ‘proving’ family status was important in these circumstances. (Recent UK adaptations of Dickens’ Bleak House and Little Dorrit have translated the novels into a serial melodrama format.)
  • the rise of the picture story. Gledhill points out that during the latter part of the nineteenth century, there was an enormous interest in all forms of ‘pictorialising’, not just through the new forms of photography and lantern slides, but also through painting, displayed in new public art galleries, and illustrated books, stained glass etc. Many of the images so created drew on the mise en scène of the previously ‘illegitimate theatre’, so that in a simple tableau of family members, the decor and the gestures of the individual characters could be easily read in such scenes as the the family getting ready to sail to a new land or awaiting the news of a father’s disgrace etc.

Melodrama and early cinema

All of these factors meant that when the cinema began to develop as a narrative form early in the new century, it was able to draw upon a wide range of long-standing popular entertainment forms (e.g. in the fairground, where some early cinema shows were presented), classical theatre and the well-established melodramas of the new urban theatres. The theatrical companies which staged increasingly sophisticated melodramas bequeathed several important features for a cinema of popular genres. They had developed:

  • complex systems of lifts and rolling scenery props, allowing spectacular scenes on stage (a locomotive crash, runaway horses etc!) with highly-skilled teams of technicians. 
  • ‘stock companies’ of actors who appeared in each show, playing a particular ‘type’ of character, who would be recognised by the audience. This idea would be taken up by film producers and directors. You might even see this in contemporary cinema with the use of character actors like Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi etc. Certainly it was true of directors like John Ford or Orson Welles (the Mercury Theatre Group) in the 1940s.

‘Silent Cinema’ drew heavily on the conventions of the theatrical melodrama. It was not of course ‘silent’ – piano or even full orchestral accompaniment allowed music to play a great part in telling the story and emphasising the emotion. Acting in the cinema was developed from similar techniques in theatrical melodramas, adapted only when filmmakers realised the possibilities of the close-up and the power of editing. Melodrama was an important genre in national cinemas across the world from around 1910 onwards and by 1927 had become highly developed in terms of mise en scène and camerawork.
The coming of sound was in some ways a step back for melodrama – Hollywood, in particular began to concentrate on dialogue and the early sound cameras were in any case difficult to move. Hollywood had attracted many European directors, skilled in sophisticated melodrama techniques, during the 1920s and in the 1930s many more made the trip, escaping from Hitler. They were frustrated during the early sound period, but later, especially in the 1950s with the introduction of CinemaScope and the greater use of Technicolor, they were able to draw on their experience of European art and theatre traditions in devising extravagant mise en scène and camera movements. Douglas Sirk, Max Ophuls, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder were all Germans or Austrians with this experience.

Europe and America

Melodrama is a universal form – it is found in virtually every national cinema. Yet the form it takes does vary. You may wish to discuss how familiar melodrama emotional conflicts might be represented in different societies. One major criterion of melodrama is often argued to be ‘the happy ending’ (in order to distinguish melodrama from tragedy). This is certainly the case with most American melodramas, which perhaps for Europeans run the risk of being ‘over sentimental’. By contrast, melodramas in societies with strict codes of honour can often be concerned with the inevitability of defeat and destruction (as in Japanese or Chinese melodramas) or, at best the ‘bittersweet’ taste of the Austrian stories told by Ophuls or Wilder.
In an ‘open’ society where passionate behaviour is unremarkable, a melodrama will be very different from a similar story in Britain where ‘repressed emotion’ can lead to sudden outbursts from characters who are normally restrained. By importing directors, writers and stars with ‘European sensibilities’, Hollywood was able to have the best of both worlds. As we have noted in the introduction, melodramas were often despised by critics of the period, despite (or perhaps, because of?) their popularity with audiences. They were dismissed as trivial, trashy etc. – implying that they were made without skill or care. This was far from the case. Melodramas were arguably the most difficult films to make, requiring extraordinary control by the director over the sets, the camera operations and the performances of the actors. When the French critics of Cahiers du Cinéma began to promote film directors of ‘popular cinema’ as worthy of study, they chose in many cases the directors of melodramas.

Defining and classifying melodramas

There are relatively few ‘pure’ film melodramas, which fit a particular set of criteria, and even then there are several different types of relatively pure melodrama. Our task is to define melodrama in much more general terms. We might begin by taking all films and dividing them into two very broad categories – action and melodrama.

Action films tend to be ‘goal-orientated’ – they progress to a particular resolution such as the war is won, the killer is captured etc. Action narratives have conflicts which are tackled through action – characters go out and do something. It follows from this that the editing of sequences to represent movement by characters is of central importance. By contrast, melodramas are about relationships between characters and the resolution of a melodrama narrative concerns the restoration of one or more relationships, or their replacement by others. In a sense, melodramas are more ‘circular’ than ‘linear’. The conflicts in melodramas can often not be resolved by ‘action’, it is the failure of characters to act or even to speak about ‘the problem’ which creates the conflict. The emotional struggle in a melodrama must be expressed or ‘displaced’ in some way. Instead of the editing of action sequences, melodramas deal in mise en scène, performance and music.

“Almost throughout the picture, I used deep-focus lenses which have the effect of giving a harshness to the objects and a kind of enamelled, hard surface to the colours. I wanted this to bring out the inner violence, the energy of the characters which is all inside them and can’t break through.”

This explanation by Douglas Sirk about the colour in Written on the Wind (US 1956) is quoted by Thomas Elsaesser (1972) as the best possible description of what 1950s melodramas were about. In the film, a wealthy Texas oilman marries a designer, while his sister sets her sights on the oilman’s best friend. The oilman turns to the bottle when it seems there will be no son and heir. When his wife does get pregnant, suspicion falls on the best friend . . . On the face of it, a familiar melodrama narrative, which only gains distinction from the way it is presented. Later, of course, a television series called Dallas picked up on the fascination most audiences find with sex and wealth in a society like that of the Texas oil country and created one of the most popular television programmes worldwide (as critics pointed out, families in Africa and Asia could recognise the tensions within the family circle).

So, although many films will have ‘melodrama moments’ (even action pictures will have moments where emotions are expressed through mise en scène, performance and music – think of the ‘standoff’ before a gunfight in a western), the ‘pure melodrama’ will concentrate solely on relationships, and audiences will seek clues to the emotional state of the characters through expressive use of props, gesture etc. These relationships will often come into conflict because of the disruptive effect of some external agency – social or cultural change or ‘difference’. Whether these effects invoke a discussion of ‘issues’ amongst the audience or are simply accepted as part of the mechanics of the plot is what makes melodrama interesting. Certainly, critics have latched on to the potentially subversive nature of melodrama. What is more certain is that the issues in melodrama relate directly to personal relationships rather than threats to the community or nation which characterise action films. At the most basic level, film melodramas must display these two features:

  • expressive style
  • concern with personal relationships

This is the fluidity of melodramas, which can be set almost anywhere and cross with many other more tightly defined genres (including ostensibly action genres). One of our problems in defining particular types of melodrama is that the term itself was used very loosely by the Hollywood studios in the 1930s and 1940s to describe most forms of drama, including action films and thrillers (see Maltby 1995). It was almost as if the term applied to genre pictures generally. In contrast, despite the impression given by some current writers, the studios themselves placed high value on the idea of the ‘woman’s picture’ (it was the male critical establishment which despised the genre). The studios recognised the spending power of the female audience. We can define a number of possible melodrama genre types:

crime melodrama – a drama in which crime is the cause of the problems faced by characters, rather than the basis for an action narrative (i.e. the gangster film). Many crime melodramas are better known as films noirs.

film noir – some films in the period 1940-58 are now often categorised under the banner of film noir, because of their stylistic features or general reference to the ‘underside’ of contemporary post-war American society. Classic examples of the genre, such as In A Lonely Place (1950) or Mildred Pierce (1945) are very much more interested in relationships than in crimes. It is also notable that many of the European emigrés who developed mise en scène and camera techniques, were also involved in film noir.

costume melodrama – historical films can focus on action (the epic or swashbuckler) or relationships. The costumes and the different social mores of earlier periods allow for an ‘excessive’ mise en scène. French and British costume films often look back to the eighteenth century (e.g. the Gainsborough Studio films in Britain in the 1940s). Are the current round of Victorian literary adaptations classifiable as melodramas? Some certainly make strong claims.

gothic melodrama – ‘gothic’ implies horror and certain Victorian costume films may have an added element of danger or ‘evil’.

woman’s picture – like youth pictures, these films are defined by their audience address rather than by specific themes or styles. The central characters will be women and the narratives will centre on issues important to women. Some films may be ‘romances’ or comedies. Many of the 1940s melodramas were targeted directly at the disproportionately large female domestic audience during the war years. They were often disparagingly termed ‘weepies’ or ‘tearjerkers’. A more modern variant is the idea of the ‘chick flick’.

family melodrama – maternal melodrama or male melodrama. This is the typically American form of melodrama, focusing on families and often on specific mother/daughter or father/son relationships. The 1950s melodramas were specifically associated with the middle-class American family, but earlier films, such as Stella Dallas (1937) also addressed the issue of working-class origins and ‘marrying out’ into the middle-class.

colonial melodrama – the ‘exotic’ orient provided the location for melodramas which were based on the possibility of corruption of the ‘civilised white settler’ by the native culture in Asia and Africa. These are a feature of British and French cinemas, as well as Hollywood. Much more problematic for contemporary filmmakers, there are still examples of this type in the 1990s. A subset of this type comprises American melodramas dealing with the experience of African-Americans under slavery and its aftermath in the South.
There are other melodramas which are perhaps best described by their relationship to more familiar genres – melodramas set in the American west for example, both during the classic period of the late nineteenth century and more recently. There are also hybrids with horror.

Narrative analysis

As we have indicated above, the interest in melodrama centres on the relationships between characters, rather than the achievement of specific goals. The story as such in many melodramas is at once both very simple and sometimes highly contrived. After you have seen Fear Eats the Soul, you will probably be able to recall the main points of the story quite easily. We tend not to study melodrama to understand how a complex cinematic narrative is constructed in terms of dealing with ‘time and space’ – it is possibly more productive to choose a thriller with plenty of ‘cause and effect’ chains of action.

Some of the common narrative analysis theories, such as those derived from Propp’s analysis of fairy tales, are not easily applied to melodrama. These theories look at the conflicts set up by the opposition of a hero and villain, with the hero embarking on a quest. Although early theatrical melodramas certainly dealt with crudely drawn ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, film melodramas about relationships do not set up characters in the same way. Certainly audiences will identify with particular characters and will be concerned about how they behave in the circumstances set up by the film, but will they expect them to ‘win out’ – and what will ‘winning’ mean?

More useful, perhaps, is the observation about narrative structure, set out by Tzvetan Todorov. He suggested that most narratives are structured around a ‘disruption’ to the prevailing status quo. This leads in turn to a set of conflicts in which the characters struggle to solve the problems created. Eventually some form of resolution is achieved and a new ‘equilibrium’ is established, which may be the same or different to the previous status quo. This seemingly simple observation provides a good description of what happens in the film which is effectively our starting point – Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (US 1955). In this story the disruption occurs when a respectable middle-class widow meets and falls in love with a younger man. The conflicts arise with her son and daughter and friends at the country club, all of whom disapprove, both of the unstated sexual liaison and the fact that the man is decidedly ‘bohemian’. The pressure from her family and friends nearly makes her end the affair and only after a dramatic accident does she rebuild the relationship. In this case it is a ‘happy ending’ which produces a new equilibrium, although there is a ‘price’ of pain to pay for the promised future.

A similar structure applies to Fear Eats the Soul and My Son the Fanatic, although the extra dimension of racial and religious difference introduces another layer of conflict. You will have to decide whether the resolutions of these films are ‘happy’ or not and what kinds of price has to be paid. The Piano is slightly different in that the disruption is a journey which takes a mother and child away from one family situation and forcibly places them in another. We learn so little about the previous period of ‘stability’ that it is hard to judge what changes are taking place – although audiences can read into the story a great deal about the characters. The conflicts are about how the woman can achieve her desires, although again these are not obvious or clear-cut. The resolution of the film is not convincing in the sense that we can’t be sure if she has achieved what she wants or how she feels about it. This pushes us to reconsider the struggles earlier. Although The Piano is in effect a costume melodrama, set in the nineteenth century, this lack of resolution and our subsequent return to the struggle means that the film has great resonance for contemporary audiences, who have little difficulty thinking through the issues in a more modern context.

The colonial dimension of The Piano (it is set on a ‘plantation’ in New Zealand), points us neatly towards a further set of theoretical ideas suggested by the social anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Genre theorists borrowed Strauss’ idea of a conflict structure based on binary oppositions to explain how many genre films were constructed. The oppositions which we can find in colonial melodramas are striking and provide us with useful insights into how a colonial narrative produces meaning. These narratives are based on ideas and values that the characters are likely to have had at the time. Consider the following oppositions:

White Settler                ‘Native’

Civilised                       Savage
Educated                      Ignorant
Controlled                    Wild
Sexually restrained      Sexually promiscuous
Moral                           Amoral
Rational                       Superstitious

You can probably come up with further oppositions which explain how the Victorian settlers viewed ‘native’ peoples. These are not necessarily presented as straight opposites. Rather, they map out a terrain. The European melodrama is rarely interested in the ‘colonised’ peoples, so the main work of the melodrama narrative is to look at the struggle of white male and female settlers to develop a healthy emotional state in the midst of the overpowering ‘otherness’ of the colonial environment. Usually it is the white woman who ‘succumbs’ – this always been thought more shocking than the white male with the ‘native girl’. In terms of mise en scène, it is worth thinking about the colonial environment, in which the heat, the scents of spices and exotic flowers, the strange animals and spectacular landscapes all appeal to the senses (‘arouse’ emotions) more than the familiar ‘home’ environment.

Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin in The Piano
Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin in The Piano

In The Piano the woman is drawn, not directly to a native (Maori) figure, but instead to a white man who has ‘gone native’ – in some ways an even more despicable figure for respectable society than the native male (who can sometimes be stereotyped as the ‘good native’ or the ‘noble savage’). The white man who adopts native habits has not only betrayed his own culture, but has also degraded what is worthwhile in native culture. When you see The Piano you should find little difficulty identifying sequences in which these binary oppositions are emphasised and which clearly propel the narrative forward. What makes The Piano particularly interesting (and perhaps led to some of the controversy over reactions to the film) is that the central woman character is also trapped in another set of oppositions – as a woman in the strictly patriarchal Victorian society. She has been sent/brought to New Zealand essentially as a piece of male property. Her transgression – the affair with Baines – is doubly marked, she has both broken out of her marital relationship, her enslavement as property, and sullied herself with a ‘degenerate’ man.

It is this double marking or ‘over determination’ which makes The Piano so much a melodrama. We have emphasised so far that melodrama mise en scène is expressive and excessive – everything seems to be exaggerated, almost to the point of hysteria. In this context, over determination can apply to both the events – piled on top of each other – and particular aspects of the mise en scène. To take just one example, much comment has been made about the costumes in The Piano. The woman wears a crinoline – a voluminous skirt supported by a rigid cage. This is both supportive (the woman and her daughter use the crinoline as a tent when they are landed on the beach) and restrictive (as she tries to cross the uneven and boggy ground – the endless rain is also a potential sign of sexual release). This supportive/restrictive clothing also provides great erotic excitement for the man in terms of what it hides and obstructs him from accessing.

The double marking of the woman in The Piano means that the colonial ‘discourse’ or argument is to a certain extent obscured by the feminist discourse – does our positive response to what the woman achieves by breaking out of her unhappy marriage prevent us reading the colonial discourse?

As a preliminary to watching The Piano, try to map out the oppositions you think might be relevant for middle-class men and women in Victorian society. Which qualities would be expected from men rather than women etc.?


Hanif Kureshi (1998) My Son the Fanatic, London: Faber & Faber
Jackie Byars (1991) All That Hollywood Allows, Routledge, London
Thomas Elsaesser (1972) ‘Tales of Sound and Fury – Observations on the Family Melodrama’ in Gledhill (ed) op cit.
Christine Gledhill (ed) (1987) Home Is Where The Heart Is, British Film Institute, London
Richard Maltby (1995) Hollywood Cinema, Blackwell, London
Laura Mulvey (1977) ‘Notes on Sirk and Melodrama’ in Gledhill (ed) op cit



Gomorra (Italy 2008)


Marco and Ciro find a stash of weapons in Gomorra

Marco and Ciro find a stash of weapons in Gomorra

Much has been written about Gomorra since it won the Jury Prize at Cannes in May and so I’ll restrict myself to a few personal observations.

I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ watching the film but I was impressed and sometimes startled by the world represented here.

If you haven’t followed all the coverage, Gomorra centres on a specific suburb of Naples called Campania where, in a few run-down blocks of flats, the residents form a network of families controlled by the Camorra – the Neapolitan criminal clan system similar to the Sicilian Mafia. The film offers five separate stories that overlap and create, as the punning title suggests, a contemporary Gomorrah. These stories deal with Camorra activities related to the drugs trade, waste disposal and counterfeiting designer clothing as well as control over local housing. They also explore relationships in a close-knit community. According to various descriptions of Camorra activity, it is much more likely that there will feuding between clans that keep splitting into smaller groups than would be expected in other organised criminal groups such as the Sicilian Mafia.

I confess that I found the narrative hard to follow and that the most affective aspect of the film for me was in the representation of the environment in which the action takes place. Unlike American crime films where the action takes place against a ‘backdrop’, here I felt that these were real blocks of flats and a complete ‘other world’ was being created onscreen. The effect was emphasised by not using recognisable stars. OK, I wouldn’t necessarily have recognised Italian star actors, but the central point is people were cast for authenticity rather than for glamour. Indeed this must be one of the least glamorous movies ever to show organised crime. It is a long, long way from De Niro and Liotta in Goodfellas or Pacino in Scarface, although the last of these is heavily referenced by the two young men at the centre of one story.

The whole film is summed up for me in a remarkable shot which follows a character who survives an assassination of several clan members by an opposing clan. The camera follows this man from a high angle as he leaves the scene of shooting in an apartment block and walks up a street. Gradually as the camera both tracks and pulls back, we realise that the block which appeared isolated is actually situated next to a major road and the survivor is soon on the side of the road and then swallowed up by the city. I was struck by the sense of being in an environment that is at once ‘real’ and ‘surreal’. There were moments at the beginning of the film when I wondered if all of this was happening several years ago. Then I realised that much of the film looked familiar. I may have read about similar scenes in crime novels or perhaps these were images that reminded me of places I have visited in parts of Mediterranean Europe, Africa or Asia where such environments are possible – but of course I have never seen anything like the action that is shown in the film. I think I’m trying to say that the film is about both the ordinary and the extraordinary in terms of mise en scène.

There is a lot of shallow focus in the CinemaScope cinematography and this may add to the sense of dislocation. Something else which makes the film look different is the focus on two specific immigrant groups. The African community in Naples appears to be both involved in work in the drugs trade and in supplying labour for the container port – which in turn is one of the means of entry for illegal immigration (something picked up in other films such as Michael Winterbottom’s In This World). Those illegals may be South Asian or Chinese (or East European), but in Gomorra, the Chinese seem to be well settled and engaged in an operation in counterfeiting designer clothes – in competition with Camorra-funded sweat shops. The otherwise very useful coverage in Sight & Sound (November 2008) suggests that the music in the film is “limited to the odd cheesy pop song listened to by the protagonists . . .” (S&S Review by Guido Bonsaver). But this isn’t accurate. For instance, the Chinese counterfeiters have a meal with a song by Teresa Teng playing in the background. As I discovered in researching Comrades – Almost a Love Story, Teng’s songs are a crucial emotional element in stories about the Chinese diaspora from the 1970s onwards. I don’t think this is ‘cheesy’. Much of the other music is heavy American or European rap/hip-hop/drum ‘n bass etc.. This isn’t cheesy either (although I never really know what people mean by this phrase other than they don’t like the music). Rather than “counterpointing the social wasteland on screen”, I think the music has a dialogue with it.

One aspect of the film that the Sight & Sound writers definitely get right is the focus on the criminals and the community. The ‘official’ world of Neapolitan municipal authority is barely glimpsed apart from some long shots of the police. It appears that the Camorra are both police force and welfare state within the apartment blocks. Even the Catholic church is absent apart from a cast of the Christ figure in one shot of families moving out (or moving in?) of the apartments. 

If it wasn’t for the high level of violence, efficiently doled out, the footsoldiers of the Camorra would seem to be rather insignificant figures. Far more sinister and insidious are the more sophisticated activities of illegal waste dumping and clothing sweatshops and these are represented very well in terms of the way in which their ‘externalities’ (primarily the employment opportunities) permeate the community on many levels. Perhaps the most psychologically disturbing sequence sees children employed as the drivers of trucks carrying toxic waste for dumping.

Smart People (US 2008)

Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page in Smart People

Smart People offers mildly diverting entertainment, but overall is possibly a disappointment. It’s the story of widowed Eng Lit lecturer Lawrence (Dennis Quaid), something of a pompous windbag, his children Vanessa (Ellen Page), the straight A high school student and James (Ashton Holmes) the university student who feels his father has forgotten him, and finally Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), the no-good adopted brother of Lawrence. The ‘smart’ people of the title are arguably Lawrence and Vanessa who are brilliantly learned but socially inept. (Chuck and James just get out of the way much of the time.) 

The ‘inciting incident’ is an accident that takes Lawrence to ER where the head physician turns out to be an ex-student who swapped to biology and then medical school. This is Janet played by Sarah Jessica Parker. I think this is the fault line in the narrative. The ‘romantic comedy’ that follows is conventional and not particularly comic, whereas the other antics of the family quartet are worth watching. This isn’t a criticism of Ms Parker, rather of the writing which creates a relationship I didn’t find believable.

The most entertainment in the film comes in the opening section when Lawrence is being curmudgeonly and horrible to his students who give back as good as they get. I’m not sure that there is a filmic equivalent of the literary genre of the campus novel, but that’s the repertoire that this narrative should have drawn from. The nearest equivalent film from recent years is Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire. (Which used the same university, Carnegie Mellon in some scenes, both films being made around Pittsburgh – does West Pennsylvania have a significance I’m missing?) Wonder Boys scores by keeping its plot much more clearly linked to university life. In the UK, we’ve had two great TV series based on campus life – The History Man (1981, based on Malcolm Bradbury’s novel) and A Very Peculiar Practice (1986) – plus adaptations of David Lodge novels. In America there have been Alison Lurie novels and others based on the politics of campus life. These make great comedy. Smart People tries hard to be literate but wastes the opportunities that scholarly bickering throws up. In a Lodge novel, the Sarah Jessica Parker character would have been an academic carving up Lawrence’s reputation – and perhaps taking him to bed for fun. A limp romantic comedy isn’t a substitute.

Ellen Page is remarkable, but wasted here, I fear. Dennis Quaid has a wonderful sloblike demeanour – I spent most of the film wondering if his paunch was prosthetic. In the end, perhaps I’m being harsh on a new director and a new writer. It is entertaining, but could have been more. As is often the case, the most fun is to be had reading the IMDB user comments and the ratings. As usual, the most positive ratings come from ‘Females under 18’, but the lowest ratings are given by ‘Females aged 30+’ – perhaps, like me, they found the Janet character too underdeveloped.

Stage Sisters (Wutai jiemei, China 1964)

The two women at the end of the film.

The two women at the end of the film.

Stage Sisters is a well made and enjoyable film that also has great significance in the history of Chinese Cinema. Director Xie Jin was one of the few figures to have continued working in China since the 1950s, making his first feature in 1957 at the age of 34 and his sixteenth in 1997 (The Opium War).

Plot outline:  Chunhua and Yuehong are the ‘stage sisters’ of the title. They meet in the late 1930s when Yuehong’s father’s popular opera troupe visits a town where Chunhua is all too willing to join the troupe. Eventually, they land up in Shanghai under Japanese occupation with Chunhua now a skilled performer. But the two young women gradually move apart before the plot brings them together again and the film ends with the triumph of the of the People’s Liberation Army.

The timing of the film’s production is one reason for its importance. Although it was completed well before the usually accepted date for the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Kwok and Quiquemelle (1987) have argued that the beginnings of the clampdown were in 1963 and that Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong and a former Shanghai actress, was instrumental in the ban received by Stage Sisters. She saw both cinema and theatre in the early 1960s as failing to adhere to policies designed to promote the conception of the People’s Republic of China as a revolutionary society. (There is also the suggestion that she was settling old scores in Shanghai.) In the first instance pressure was put on Xie Jin during production to change the latter part of his film. Then before its release in 1965 a campaign was mounted against the film – because it did not paint a sufficiently negative view of the ‘bad’ characters. During the Cultural Revolution, filmmaking was first suspended altogether and then allowed only in the form of austere revolutionary model operas. With the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, films like Stage Sisters emerged from their cocoons to charm and please audiences.

What is surprising about the ban for audiences in the West is that the vision of a Marxist future appears so palatable in the film. Two young women are shown taking different decisions about their future and it is clear which is the ‘correct’ decision. This comes across in a satisfying story that has plenty of human interest and moral ambiguity.

Traditions and metaphors
For a film like Stage Sisters to work with a mass Chinese audience, it must draw upon traditional storytelling with familiar characters and settings. This the film does by basing its story on the meeting of two young women from different backgrounds who then work together in a Shaoxing folk opera troupe.
The best known form of Chinese opera in the West is Beijing opera – the metropolitan opera with elegant choreography and movement. But there are regional ‘typical’ opera forms across the country. Shaoxing is a rural district south of Shanghai. It is famous for producing opera singers – singers in a more populist mode than in Beijing opera – and for an opera style with more dialogue and audience engagement. Touring troupes from Shaoxing would perform in the market place of towns and villages. Eventually these performances moved into the larger towns and cities, occupying permanent theatres. The tradition includes women playing men’s parts in traditional stories. Although the elaborate costumes, complex plots and sophisticated performance styles might seem to suggest an elite activity, Shaoxing opera was largely performed by actors of peasant stock for audiences of mainly poor people. Xie Jin was also from the Shaoxing region and he draws on his own background in the film.

The story begins in the mid 1930s when the Nationalists (KMT) were attempting to subdue local warlords and to suppress the growth of the Communists. When the Japanese invaded in 1937, a temporary truce between Nationalists and Communists lasted only a few years before a three-cornered struggle ensued. After 1945 the Communists began to win the war against the Nationalists and the film ends in 1949 when the victorious Communists enter Shanghai and the PRC (People’s Republic of China) is established. In between, the struggles of the opera troupe to find ways to struggle through the war act as a metaphor for Chinese society as a whole.

The personal dramas of the stage sisters parallel the fictional worlds of the plays they perform, which in turn, parallel the political changes occurring in Chinese society. (Marchetti 1989: 100)

Gina Marchetti suggests that Chunhua is a modern recreation of a female warrior character from traditional opera – aggressive, physically powerful, morally upright and inevitably victorious. This use of traditional types is common to many of the films of the PRC and works for both the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters, so that ‘counter-revolutionary’ figures may embody characteristics of wicked demons or monks or rogue generals.

But there are also parallels with more contemporary figures. Marchetti points to the character of Jiang Bo in Stage Sisters. She is the representative of the progressive forces in Shanghai and she acts as a major influence on Chunhua. In particular, she takes her to an exhibition in 1946 commemorating the death of Lu Xun, a literary and theatrical figure associated with the ‘May the Fourth’ Movement (the May protests of 1919 against the Versailles settlement), also known as the ‘New Cultural Movement’.

Lu Xun was another Shaoxing native who championed the rights of women, especially those of the poor and Chunhua goes on to perform in an opera based on Lu Xun’s novella, The New Year’s Sacrifice. Here the narrative of Stage Sisters points to the struggle for a socially committed theatre. It is significant that it is the Shanghai theatre world in which these events unfold. Shanghai was the Chinese city most open to the West and outside influences – both the revolutionary politics which informed the Communists and the entrepreneurial drive of capitalism.

In the final part of the Stage Sisters narrative, Chunhua is back on tour, this time performing in an opera version of The White-Haired Girl, a revolutionary play written in Yenan in 1943 at the time of Mao’s lectures on Art and Literature in which he laid out the importance of a ‘cultural army’ to fight the Chinese people’s enemies at home and abroad. Stage Sisters cleverly combines the references to traditional, ‘socially committed’ and ‘revolutionary’ operas in the performances of Chunhua. But this also requires a very careful approach to cinema aesthetics.

Combining cinema aesthetics
Xie Jin constructs the film’s narrative using three different, but interconnected approaches. First he draws on traditional Chinese literary sources (and to a certain extent, earlier forms of Chinese cinema such as the Shanghai melodramas of the 1930s). He was himself strongly influenced by Hollywood films from the 1940s studio period, especially what he termed the ‘literary’ or ‘lyric’ films such as Grapes of Wrath (John Ford 1940), Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn LeRoy 1940), Casablanca (Michael Curtiz 1942) or the 1930s Warner Brothers’ bio-pics of figures such as Emile Zola or Marie Curie.

These two sources are referenced alongside Soviet Cinema, which was perhaps the dominant cinematic mode in China in the 1950s and early 1960s. Soviet Cinema since the early 1930s had been forced by Stalin to develop what became known as ‘socialist realism‘.

Not to be confused with ‘social realism’ (a term used generally to describe films that attempt to create an authentic environment of social reality and to engage with ‘real social issues’), the Soviet variant dates from Stalin’s attempts in the early 1930s to purge Soviet cinema of its experimental and authorial features, especially those of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko. Stalin decreed that cinema must be ‘accessible’ to the masses. Accessibility did not allow for ‘art’. The socialist realist model drew on Hollywood methods to present the worker as hero in romanticised scenarios with simple linear narratives. The heroic figures were privileged in the frame through the use of lighting, camera angles and composition.

In many ways ‘Hollywood realism’ and ‘socialist realism’ used a similar aesthetic and offered audiences an easily digestible form of entertainment with the ideological work of the film disguised by ‘invisible editing’ and clear identification with characters and narrative coherence. They differed of course in terms of the individualist v. collectivist ethos of American and Soviet culture.

As well as Chinese, American and Soviet aesthetics, Xie Jin in the early 1960s was influenced by a further realist aesthetic, this time from European and World Cinema. Xie Jin himself has referred to Italian neorealism and it is likely that he was also familiar with the work of other filmmakers who were influenced by neorealism, including Satyajit Ray in Bengal (e.g. in The Apu Trilogy 1955-9). The dominant form of World Cinema in the 1950s was referred to as a ‘humanist cinema’ (a term applied to both Ray and Kurosawa Akira  at the time). The reference to humanism is generally taken to mean a text which deals with human interests rather than religious themes or the supernatural. In such films, the lives of ‘ordinary people’ in ‘ordinary situations’ are the focus. The neorealist influence meant that such stories would be filmed with less stylisation than the manufactured realism of what Jean-Luc Godard would later describe as ‘Hollywood-Mosfilm’.

Stage Sisters has many influences and it is held together by Xie Jin’s feeling for the human characters.

. . . the delicacy and skill with which Xie Jin has so often juxtaposed official messages approved by the political hierarchy of the time, with other more subversive scenes and comments. His films are often laced with scenes of sheer human pleasure in everyday social banalities, delight in which quietly melts the edges of hard Party truths and relentless social critiques. Not that Xie Jin is a ‘schizophrenic’ director: rather he has an overwhelming sense for the full texture of social interaction. (John Downing, responding to Timothy Tung, 1987: 207)

(The film is in Technicolor despite the still above.)

Kwok and M. C. Quiquemelle (1982 and 1987) ‘Chinese Cinema and Realism’ in John Downing (ed.) Film and Politics in the Third World, New York: Autonomedia
Gina Marchetti (1989) ‘Two Stage Sisters: The blossoming of a revolutionary aesthetic’ in Jump Cut No 34.
Timothy Tung (1987) ‘The Work of Xie Jin: A Personal Letter to the Editor’ in Downing (ed.) op cit.

(Many of Xie Jin’s films were seen in America in the mid-1980s and Jump Cut 34 has a major section on Xie Jin and Chinese Cinema. Gina Marchetti’s article has formed the basis for these notes.
In 1988, following the successful release of Yellow Earth, a new Xie Jin film, Hibiscus Town was released in the UK. Xie Jin was a prolific filmmaker throughout his career (except for the period of the Cultural Revolution) but only two of his films have been widely seen in the UK.

Questions for discussion

1. Do we think that Stage Sisters manages to deliver a coherent story in a consistent style, given the many influences and pressures on its director?

2. What reading do we make of the resolution of the film’s narrative and in particular what happened to the ‘stage sisters’?

3. If the film’s narrative is indeed a metaphor for the social and political history of China in the period 1935-50, what do we understand about that history and what might we expect to see in later films?

Roy Stafford (based on notes compiled in 2003/4 for evening classes on Chinese Cinema)