World Africa

Blaxploitation movies, South Africa style? A lost era of film sees new light.

a shift in thought

South Africa's 'B-scheme' films from the 1970s and '80s featured all black casts and offbeat escapism – in part because the apartheid government wanted to keep every facet of black society in its grip. But they also showed blacks a life that might be possible.

Dan Poho and Abigail Kubeka in 'Joe Bullet,' directed by Louis de Witt.
Courtesy of BERLINALE FILM/Gravel Road Entertainment Group | Caption

On the surface, Joe Bullet seems an unlikely enemy of the apartheid state.

A karate-chopping, knife-throwing 1970s action film hero, Mr. Bullet’s enemies were the chain-smoking gangsters of South Africa’s seedy criminal underworld – not the white government.

But in 1973, after just two screenings, the South African government banned the popular action film in which Bullet was the title character, sending its swashbuckling hero into unceremonious early retirement.

The reason? They were worried Joe Bullet might give black South Africans the wrong idea about what was possible in their lives.

“He was a black man staying in posh places, driving a nice car, taking the law into his own hands – today it seems ordinary in a film but then it was an extraordinary thing,” says Tonie van der Merwe, a white construction company owner who produced the film, and later hundreds more like it. “My belief is that the government just didn’t know what to make of it, so they just banned it outright.”

Indeed, the original Joe Bullet reels spent the next 40 years in a dusty box in the back of Mr. van der Merwe’s garage, a heavy but nostalgic relic he couldn’t quite bear to part ways with whenever he moved to a new home. Then, in 2013, he offhandedly mentioned the film to a Cape Town film producer named Ben Cowley, setting into motion a commercial revival not just of Joe Bullet, but of an entire era of high-drama, low-budget black South African films made in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Since then, these movies have done the rounds at European film festivals, Johannesburg indie cinemas, and on South Africa’s national broadcaster. Mr. van der Merwe has even won one of the country’s most prestigious film awards in 2014.

“This part of our history is largely undocumented,” says Mr. Cowley, whose company Gravel Road has now digitized about 50 of the old films. “Some of these movies are absolutely terrible, but there’s a certain novelty to seeing that world, and it still resonates with people.”

Africa’s raucous homegrown film industries have for years been massive hit factories across the continent, popping out movies by the thousands for audiences hungry to see an on-screen world that rarely appears in Hollywood films – their own. Often filmed with little in the way of equipment, crew, or cash, such movies thrive less on their aesthetic value than on their ability to hold a mirror to a continent better known in Western cinemas as a bleak landscape of war, disease, and poverty. The grandfather of them all, Nigeria’s Nollywood, is now the second largest producer of films in the world, trailing only India's Bollywood in the number of films it puts out each year.

White men behind black cinema

But if revived South African action flicks like Joe Bullet are in some ways a nod to this rich filmmaking traditions, they also churn up a far murkier history here.

Unlike in Nollywood, after all, hidden behind nearly every “black” film from South Africa in the 1970s and ‘80s were a whole lot of white people.

Some were men like van der Merwe – who borrowed most of Joe Bullet’s props from his own construction sites – entrepreneurs who saw a massive untapped film market in South Africa’s black townships and rural “homelands” (semi-autonomous territories roughly akin to Native American reservations). They set up ad-hoc production and distribution companies, creating films at a rapid clip and then dispatching them with sheets and projectors to churches and school halls in the country’s rural hinterlands.

But the major white player in the industry was the apartheid government itself, which from 1972 began offering a subsidy for the production of films made with black casts for black audiences – a program it dubbed the “B-scheme” (to distinguish it from the A-scheme, a much larger subsidy given to white films).

“It was about keeping the masses entertained and quiet – but I think it was even bigger than that,” says Nyasha Mboti, a film expert and head of the department of communication studies at the University of Johannesburg. The B-scheme, he says, was part of the white government’s strategy to bring every facet of black society – from the education to policing to cultural institutions – into its grip at the very moment when an exploding resistance movement threatened to wrest away that control entirely.

Nearly all the “black” films that followed Joe Bullet – which was produced without a subsidy – were tediously careful to avoid any political undertones that could get them banned. At the end of one B-scheme action flick, for instance, the lead character turns to the camera and announces gravely, “All this violence could have been avoided if we just sat down and talked about it.”

'Proof that they existed'

The B-scheme, which produced about 1,600 films of wildly varying quality, lasted just over a decade. It was dissolved in 1989, just before the government that had created it met the same fate (Nelson Mandela walked free from prison the following year). Then, until the digitization and restoration began a few years ago, its films largely disappeared from the public eye.

But Russell Grant, who co-owns the Bioscope, an indie cinema in downtown Johannesburg that has recently begun showing old B-scheme films, says that is part of the appeal for modern audiences – getting a window into an era of film they never knew existed.

For contemporary fans of the movies, that appeal ranges from the fluffy – they are fast moving and fun, laced with wacky fight scenes and melodramatic soundtracks – to the philosophical. At a time when apartheid controlled early every facet of how a black South African lived, these films seem to offer up an alternate universe: a fantasy world where race barely existed at all. In the world of B-scheme film, every character, from the good guys to the villains to the distressed damsels, was black.

In a way, Mr. Mboti says, that simple fact in itself was radical, and lent an element of subversion in even the most saccharine B-scheme films.

“Seeing so many black characters on screen meant something completely different to the white production board than it did to black audiences,” Mboti says. For the white government, it was a quiet form of escapism. But “for black audiences, this was a kind of proof that they existed.”