At the screening of Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony that I attended in Seattle last year, director Lee Hirsch and producer Sherry Simpson asked the audience to shout “Awethu!” whenever they heard “Amandla,” thus completing the South African version of the slogan “Power to the People.” Hirsch and Simpson risked skewing the screening’s mood, but it paid off: For the next 100 minutes, the room rang out with voices increasingly moved by the calls to action on-screen.
Amandla! is a wake-up call, as well as an act of historical preservation and a heartfelt salute. Black South Africa’s long march against apartheid is a subject with its own shelf in the pop-culture shop—in the 1980s, it became the stuff of Broadway musicals and pop songs. Hirsch, who began work on Amandla! a decade ago, at age 20, refreshes the story with some stylistic tricks (he’s also directed music videos). Mostly, though, it’s his choice to make song itself the most important presence in a story packed with memorable people and heart-wrenching events that lends Amandla! the exhortatory power of music itself.
The high drama of the 1998 transfer of Vuyisile Mini’s remains from a potter’s field to a proper resting place sets the film’s tone of justice being served. This writer of many key freedom songs was executed in 1964; one of Amandla!‘s few ironic moments comes when a white military trumpeter plays a dirge at Mini’s belated hero’s funeral. Mini went to the gallows singing, insisting on music’s power to outlive one voice. His example is Hirsch’s touchstone.
Amandla! traces the development of the freedom movement song by song, from the melancholy swing of ballads of displacement like “Meadowlands”; through the defiant dignity of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” the “people’s national anthem”; and on to the more militaristic music that followed the 1976 Soweto uprising. Songs transform as needed; as one freedom fighter observes, take out a reference to the Bible, put in an AK-47, and a battle cry is born. The film’s energy peaks with footage of the “toyi-toyi,” the marching dance the ANC’s military wing used during protests in the 1980s, which resembles a massive moshpit turned toward a purpose more urgent than most punks could comprehend.
The songs’ own biographies interweave with those of South African freedom fighters. Famous exiles Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Abdullah Ibrahim enter into dialogue with lesser-known activists and artists. Stories of horrible brutality mix with homages to the human spirit; with very rare exceptions, those tales of extraordinary courage turn on musical invocations. Interviewees constantly burst into song, and Hirsch edits segments together to merge disparate voices, showing how for this movement, music was no universal language—it was specific, pointed, and almost paranormal in its power.
The choice to mostly ignore South African music not directed toward protest results in some loss of context. But that doesn’t override the vital importance of Amandla!, especially here and now. America needs to revitalize its own freedom song tradition to suit the present crisis. As usual, Africa gives us the template to form our own call and response.