There is a fine film to be made about the battle for independence waged and won by Namibians against South Africa. Sadly, Charles Burnett’s latest epic is not that film. Made with public funding from the Namibian government and aided by Carl Lumbly and Danny Glover’s star power, this formless, flaccid saga shows too much attention to facts and too little to dramatics. Though the unusual collaboration between African and Yank talent will draw some curious eyes, theatrical prospects are virtually nil outside southern African and select Euro sites, with an HBO-type cable deal the most likely Stateside option.
The results are particularly frustrating for those who have long admired Burnett’s work (starting with the astonishing, recently re-released “Killer of Sheep” and continuing with “To Sleep With Anger” and “The Glass Shield”) but have hoped for the kinds of personal American films he’s so capable of delivering. Reportedly taxing in every respect and adapted from a script by Vikson Hangula and Femi Koyode, the sprawling production never feels like a genuine Burnett film in any respect, save certain moments with Glover (“To Sleep With Anger”).
Rather, as the title suggests, “Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation” feels like a bland, state-approved production, chronicling the rise of the nation’s founding father and first president, Samuel Nujoma (Lumbly), and the countless factors that played into his victory and South Africa’s eventual defeat. (Nujoma’s autobiography was the basis for the original script.)
Given that most Yanks can’t even find Namibia on a map (hint: just north of South Africa); that neither Lumbly nor Glover are major names for young African-American viewers; that a good portion of the dialogue is in Afrikaans, Oshiwambo, OtjiHerero and German; and that pic clocks in at an interminable two hours and 41 minutes, “Namibia” will strikemost potential distribs as commercially toxic.
Opening images, bathed in sun-drenched yellow tones (care of lenser John Njaga Demps) and set in 1945, immediately strike a poetic tone, as 16-year-old Nujoma (Joel Haikili) observes young boys herding buffalo and chanting a liberation song. He warns them to be quiet, hinting at the oppressive conditions endured by black Africans in the nation-state of South West Africa. Such intimate, story-oriented moments are all too rare, though, in a film that tends to summarize large historical and political movements with wooden dialogue.
Nujoma learns of his royal bloodline, and a flashback to 1938 — when he first absorbed the nature of his homeland’s awful conditions under the South African Boers — is designed to fill in a bit of his character. Urged by his family to find work in the coastal port of Walvis Bay, Nujoma moves in with his aunt (Thembie Matu) and bonds with Father Elias (Glover), a liberal man of the cloth pressed to relocate after a terrible police-staged car crash and murder. During this episode, a baby (dubbed Sam Hosea by Elias) is rescued from the murder scene, and, like Nujoma, becomes a symbol of the growth of Namibian independence.
Pacing is a constant problem with the film, burdened by dissolves, scene changes and a parade of new and changing characters — not least of which is the startling sight of Nujoma, suddenly 10 years older and played by Lumbly, who looks nothing like Haikili.
While Nujoma helps develop a revolutionary movement that eventually leads to the SWAPO party and, later, an army, various cartoonish bad guys — racist local constabulary Capt. Smith (Erno Van Dyk) and alcoholic black chieftain Chief Kambonde (Lucky Pieters) — drift in an out of the film. A boycott and massacre of protestors turn up the heat, forcing Nujoma into exile.
A short sequence just past the midpoint, involving Hosea and comrade-in-arms Red (Obed Emvula) in a covert mission against South African troops and black trackers in the desert, is a fine, compactly told episode that reveals more about the struggle than any number of talky scenes that try to lay out the history.
Nujoma unexpectedly returns (with one of the worst bits of beard makeup since “Gods and Generals”) to lead the SWAPO charge against a South African propped up by U.S. anti-communist interests. Pic is surely unique in addressing not only the thinking behind American support of the apartheid regime, but also Cuba’s direct military support of SWAPO. Unfortunately, such details are presented with little energy or verve, and even the trench warfare battles between white and black troops aren’t as gripping as they sound.
Perfs from a vast cast, with some 150 speaking roles, are generally undistinguished, including Lumbly, a generally superb actor whose best roles have always been in the theater. Glover and Appollus (as Hosea) come closest to carving out genuine characters.
Pic is chock-full of conservatively staged scenes that have none of Burnett’s usual inventiveness and vigor. Though he also takes script credit, the lumpy structure and borderline-unplayable dialogue suggest a script by committee rather than a single guiding intelligence.
Besides Demps’ clean lensing, other production aspects are pro, with the exception of Stephen James Taylor’s canned score. With its stark landscapes and spectacular dune coastlines, Namibia has been a favorite location choice for Hollywood, and pic uses it to maximum advantage.