Despite a highly complicated history, a relatively small economy and years of global isolation, South Africa has never really failed to provide the world of celebrity with its own bright talents.
There is talent aplenty in this country to compete internationally, as well as offer art distinguished by a South African edge.
In March, it was announced that South African comedian Trevor Noah would be taking the helm of the immensely popular and influential The Daily Show, a late-night talk and satirical news show that provides running commentary on American politics; an astounding feat for a comedian hailing originally from humble Soweto. Noah takes the chair from Jon Stewart, an actor/comedian/film director who has become part of the American landscape when it comes to both comedy and political debate.
The intriguing aspect of the appointment is that Noah, a foreign comedian, will—by default—become a much-observed American political commentator, albeit in the guise of comedic entertainment. One can’t but help think the show’s producers, besides having in mind his unquestioned comic talents, would also have felt that Noah, in his personal history as a South African, presents himself as a kind of canvas for discussion of the big issues facing the body politic globally.
Noah, who moved to the United States in 2011, has always had an international flavour to his style, likely consequent to his ability to speak six different languages, as well as his propensity to tour the world.
He grew up in South Africa as the son of a black mother and a Swiss father, whose union was considered illegal under the apartheid regime. Noah recounts that his mother was briefly imprisoned as a result. He would take the material of his upbringing and transfigure it into comedy in specials such as the now classic, That’s Racist.
With Noah’s willingness to make light of serious issues, it was perhaps no surprise that the announcement of his taking the chair of The Daily Show was met with some serious controversy, with critics sifting through old tweets to find apparently anti-Semitic and misogynist material. Noah, besides being defended by Jewish leaders, would defend himself on Twitter, stating: “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian.”
Comedy Central, the cable channel responsible for the show, issued its own statement: “Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included… To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central.”
Perhaps what makes Noah’s future so bright is a distinctly South African ability to take prosaic ugliness, the real issues of everyday life, and allow his audience to see it in a poetic way: as something ironic, tragic and thus deeply and humanly comic. In this way, he is, somehow, able to use a kind of acid humour to discuss the likes of Boko Haram, continued racism, all in a way that provokes debate within laughter. Such a formula has launched him to the forefront of US media.
South African actors are slowly becoming a staple of big Hollywood fare, even while our directors demonstrate their unique visions from behind the camera.
But Noah is just the latest in a long line of South Africans who have captured the world’s limelight.
Intriguingly, that other big South African Hollywood celebrity, Charlize Theron, shares something in common with Noah: both have seen the ugliness of domestic violence up close. Theron’s mother shot her father in self-defence, while Noah’s mother was herself shot by an ex-husband. Whether this points to the statistics of household abuse, or the virtue of both Theron and Noah in transcending tough circumstances, it perhaps also hints at the South African desire to overcome.
As history recounts, Theron would go on to win an Oscar for portraying, in all her darkness and complexity, Aileen Wuornos: a real-life serial killer in America who, following a childhood marred by trauma and abuse, goes on a killing spree of men, after defending herself against rape as a prostitute. Renowned film reviewer Roger Ebert named Monster the best film of its year, and wrote: “What Charlize Theron achieves in Patty Jenkins’ Monster isn’t a performance but an embodiment… it is one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.”
Theron has since added social activism to her cinematic career, launching the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project to stem the ongoing HIV/Aids pandemic in Africa. CTAOP awards grants to community organisations on the ground for the purposes of preventing HIV transmission.
In addition to this, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, named Theron a UN Messenger of Peace in 2008, reading in his citation: “You have consistently dedicated yourself to improving the lives of women and children in South Africa…”
Theron is not, however, the country’s only Oscar winner.
When Gavin Hood won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for Tsotsi, the film adaptation of a novel by South African theatre giant Athol Fugard, he went one better than Darrell Roodt’s nomination for his film, Yesterday. Hood has since gone on to direct some massive blockbusters in Hollywood, notably Wolverine, Rendition and Ender’s Game—featuring stars such as Hugh Jackman, Reese Witherspoon and Harrison Ford.
Hood himself studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he came across a case that would inspire him to write the screenplay for the acclaimed, A Reasonable Man. After his television work, and winning an American award for his script, he would go on to bring his script to life—leading him next to Tsotsi, and then to Hollywood lights.
His next film is titled Eye in the Sky, and will examine the rise of covert drone warfare. “We are all connected electronically, but we’re more disconnected now than ever before. We can pinpoint whom we attack now. When a missile is fired, the crew is asked to go back and inspect the bodies. It’s shocking and troubling, but it’s making us more aware of the consequences of our actions.” The film will star Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul and Alan Rickman.
After being born and schooled in Joburg, the future indie-rock superstar would leave South Africa to avoid military service (Matthews had been raised a pacifist Quaker), and would settle in New York before moving to Charlottesville, Virginia, where the band would form around his songwriting talents and gradually build a global cult following.
In 2013, he would bring his band ‘home’ for the first time, playing to sell-outs in Cape Town and Joburg, along with frequent collaborator, folk singer Vusi Mahlasela, as well as the legendary Hugh Masekela.
Matthews is a double Grammy winner, whose music frequently displays its South African roots. He recalls that playing music with the men who worked at his uncle’s dairy would be formative in his career.
Perhaps a more recent South African breakout has been the director/actor duo of Neill Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley.
Blomkamp, like Matthews, would emigrate to Canada straight after attending high school at Johannesburg’s Redhill (along with Copley).
From film school in Vancouver, Blomkamp would establish himself as one of television’s leading animators before catching the eye of The Lord of the Rings supremo Peter Jackson, who agreed to produce a film based on a short film previously made by Copley and Blomkamp, titled Alive in Joburg. The film was District 9, an eerily familiar story of aliens living in segregated slums in Johannesburg, and it would go on to be a global smash hit—garnering Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Blomkamp would later direct Matt Damon and Jodie Foster (as well as Copley again) in the high-grossing Elysium; and after something of a misfire with the artificial intelligence film Chappie, he is set to take the helm of James Cameron’s Alien franchise, with Sigourney Weaver due to return to play the iconic Ripley.
He has shown his oeuvre to be one of blending social commentary with science fiction, and creating an interaction between the two. It was this facet of his filmmaking that led him to being named in 2010 as one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
The citation, written by legendary director Ridley Scott, speaks for itself: “From time to time, there are people in the film industry who appear on the horizon with a unique vision. South African director Neill Blomkamp is one of those rare people… His first feature, the improbable but utterly engaging alien-apartheid allegory District 9, has already brought him more acclaim than most filmmakers will ever achieve… I know that we all look forward to seeing what lies ahead for this game-changing filmmaker.”
Meanwhile, Copley has gone on to star in The A-Team, and opposite Angelina Jolie in the fairy tale adaptation, Maleficent.
Equally now a part of the big-time Hollywood acting game is Fana Mokoena. Born in the Free State’s Kroonstad, he has come to fame playing a Rwandan general in the haunting Hotel Rwanda, as well as a fictional UN secretary-general in the Brad Pitt feature, World War Z. He most recently played Govan Mbeki in Long Walk to Freedom.
After his breakout in the zombie film, World War Z, Mokoena noted: “I don’t want to be typecast… I think there’s a very limited understanding of us as artists on this continent. We are seen as this type, so it would be amazing for me to break that mould.”
In short, South African actors are slowly becoming a staple of big Hollywood fare, even while our directors demonstrate their unique visions from behind the camera. As Hood and Blomkamp so clearly demonstrate, South Africans have stories to tell. And one of our most acclaimed storytellers is Nobel laureate, the novelist JM Coetzee.
Coetzee, a former professor of Literature at the University of Cape Town, has written the masterpieces Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace, subtly pulling apart the strands that make up both the apartheid and post-apartheid zeitgeist.
Indeed, in winning the Man Booker Prize twice (for Disgrace and Life & Times of Michael K), he has offered his vision of a haunted and haunting South Africa to the literary and academic world. This, in turn, has created a reputation for Coetzee of being the most esteemed (yet enigmatic) English author currently alive.
Coetzee, along with Noah, Theron, Hood et al, demonstrate what all South Africans already know: There is talent aplenty in this country to compete internationally, as well as offer art distinguished by a South African edge. These forerunners have all bashed down the door; it is now simply a matter of who wants to follow.