Mapantsula (1988)

Directed by Oliver Schmitz

Thursday November 13
4:45 pm
Rathaus 209

MAPANTSULAThe insouciant lead character in the South African film ”Mapantsula,” a thief named Panic, is as talented as he is cool. Panic is such an unflappable pickpocket that he can steal a man’s wallet and then stand there, switchblade in hand, rifling through the wallet’s contents while silently daring the victim to challenge him. He’s such a skilled shoplifter that he can wrap each half of a man’s suit tightly around one of his calves, holding the merchandise in place with heavy socks. And Panic is good with the ladies, too. As ”Mapantsula” begins, Panic’s concerns do not extend much beyond these particular spheres.

This fine and caustic South African film, directed by Oliver Schmitz and written by him and Thomas Mogotlane, the actor who plays Panic, is the story of Panic’s transformation. All around him, in the black township where his neighbors are vigorously protesting rent increases, Panic sees the difficult conditions under which others live, but he initially feels himself to be immune. ”These people live in a dream,” he says contemptuously of those blacks who hold regular jobs in the white community.

To depict the process whereby Panic is radicalized, Mr. Schmitz gives the film a dual time frame. ”Mapantsula” (the title means something like gangster) cuts back and forth between scenes of a freewheeling, unreconstructed Panic on the streets and a warier man who is now in jail, though the circumstances of his arrest are not explained fully until the film’s end.

Mr. Mogotlane makes Panic much more than a symbol, treating him as a raffish, amusingly overconfident figure at first and a visibly shaken man as the film progresses, until at last he utters the single syllable that encapsulates the film’s final point. It’s a dashing performance, and a fierce one, too. ”Mapantsula,” acted by a good and forthright South African cast, is also filled with the buoyant, inspirational a cappella music that drives its political message further home.

– Janet Maslin, New York Times (September 24, 1988)


Mapantsula was the first anti-apartheid feature film by, for and about black South Africans.  Filmed inside Soweto, scored to the urban beat of “Township Jive,” Mapantsula has been called a South African The Harder They Come.

– California Newsreel


Shown as part of the Representations of South Africa film series

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