"Drum" offers an intelligent and affecting take on political radicalization in 1950s Johannesburg.Taye Diggs gives a riveting performance as an apolitical black sportswriter who evolves into a crusading muckraker during the early years of apartheid. South African-produced drama should travel far on the fest circuit.

Conventional yet compelling in its storytelling, “Drum” offers an intelligent and affecting take on political radicalization in 1950s Johannesburg. Taye Diggs gives a riveting performance as Henry Nxumalo, an apolitical black sportswriter who evolves into a crusading muckraker during the early years of apartheid. South African-produced drama should travel far on the fest circuit and could parlay Diggs’ marquee allure into limited theatrical playdates and wide ancillary exposure.

Scripter Jason Filardi sets fact-based scenario in Sophiatown, a wide-open township where blacks and whites could commingle with relatively few restrictions during the early ’50s.

Nxumalo, a sports writer for the popular Drum magazine, is a fun-loving, hard-partying gadabout who chronically neglects Florence (Moshidi Motshegwa), his adoring but not infinitely patient wife. He moves smoothly through an after-hours world of interracial conviviality, rubbing shoulders with shapely singers, image-conscious gangsters — and a charismatic political activist named Nelson Mandela (Lindane Nkosi).

Despite his friendship with Mandela — and despite Florence’s frequent pleadings for him to write about more important matters — Nxumalo is too much of a self-involved hedonist to worry about social issues. But when a frantic mother asks Nxumalo to find her long-missing son, the sybaritic sportswriter impulsively volunteers to risk life and limb while on undercover assignment at a brutal work farm.

Nxumalo’s shocking expose of conditions at the farm boosts sales for Drum — a mainstream magazine previously devoid of political content — and launches the sportswriter in a new career as the pseudonymous “Mr. Drum,” investigative journalist extraordinaire. But as he continues to report on abuse and exploitation of poor blacks by the repressive white-controlled government, Nxumalo inevitably arouses the ire of police officials and other power brokers.

First-time feature helmer Zola Maseko is perhaps too successful at developing a palpable sense of impending disaster. Indeed, even auds unfamiliar with the real-life story of Henry Nxumalo will recognize early on how pic likely will end. But well-cast Diggs (sporting a reasonably convincing South African accent) makes a strong impression, and generates rooting interest in his character.

In addition to Motshegwa and Nkosi, standout supporting players include Jason Flemyng as Jim Bailey, the white Drum editor; Gabriel Mann as Jurgen Schadeberg, Nxumalo’s German-born photographer and confidant; Bonnie Mbuli as Dara, a sultry songstress; and Tumisho K. Masha as Can Themba, a teacher-turned-reporter who recklessly tests the limits of freedom in Sophiatown.

In best scenes, helmer Maseko and scripter Filardi effectively dramatize minor annoyances and major humiliations endured by blacks in mid-’50s South Africa under apartheid. In one casually unsettling scene, Bailey warns Nxumalo and his wife not to leave a party before he writes a note that will enable the black couple to travel through the city at night. Pic benefits from richly detailed period ambiance. Lenser Lisa Rinzler and production designer Eggert Ketilsson help conjure up a smoky, sensuous feel for Sophiatown’s nightlife. Jazz-flavored soundtrack features apt tunes by South African artists and an original score by Terence Blanchard.

Drum

South Africa

Production

An Armada Pictures Intl. presentation of VIP Medienfonds 2/Nova Films/Armada Pictures production in association with Industrial Development Corp. of South Africa. Produced by Chris Sievernich, Rudolf Wichmann. Executive producers, Andreas Schmid, Andreas Grosch, Jason Filardi, Matt Milich. Co-producer, Dumisani Dlamini. Directed by Zola Maseko. Screenplay, Jason Filardi.

Crew

Camera (color), Lisa Rinzler; editor, Troy Takaki; music, Terence Blanchard; music supervisor, Zachary Matz; production designer, Eggert Ketilsson; art director, Lisa Perry; costume designer, Pierre Viennings; sound (Dolby Digital), Dieter Keck. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (South Africa: Ten Years Later), Sept. 9, 2004. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Henry Nxumalo - Taye Diggs Jurgen Schadeberg - Gabriel Mann Can Themba - Tumisho K. Masha Florence Nxumalo - Moshidi Motshegwa Jim Bailey - Jason Flemyng Slim - Bonginkosi Diamini Todd Matshikiza - Fezile Mpela Casey Motsisi - Thapelo Mokoena Major Att Spengler - Greg Melville-Smith Nelson Mandela - Lindane Nkosi Dara - Bonnie Mbuli
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