Jerusalema borrows the name of a popular African hymn, wearing its cynical view of the world on its sleeve, and is uncompromising even in the themes that cliche renders bankable. This crime drama is set in the Hillbrow slums of Johannesburg, a dangerous town by any comparison, where morality and restraint are luxuries only for tourists able to bypass it at the highest speed. Gauteng Province holds Pretoria and Jo’burg, which are the gate to 10% of the GDP of the entire continent and over 40% of the planet’s gold reserves. The wealth has attracted entrepreneurs of all stripes, and only a fool would imagine there are rules to this game. Those living in the safe places of the world are privy to the official economy, where one shops at the store and purchases things by contract at maximum price. In the darker passages in any city on Earth lies the unofficial economy, where most of the world plies their trade, and dollars trade euros trade the South African rand for what we need to survive. And so we understand where Jerusalema resides, that paradise where the free market is truly free and force dictates all. This is a skillfully made film crackling with propulsive momentum, and takes the crime film in a joyfully anarchic direction. Morality, race, and financial onus collide with the indifferent brick of Jozi, that city built in an awful goddamned hurry once the gold reef was discovered. Finding a way amidst the mass of anonymous humanity is Lucky Kunene, an extraordinary businessman who is inspiring for all the right reasons. In a world where the way is inscribed for everyone, he tries to find another.
The harsh skyline of Johannesburg opens the film, as tall buildings fill the eye, functional places of the city center. This bustling realm of commerce was abandoned in the late 1980s as crime skyrocketed and the rand took a nosedive, left empty as the stock exchange left for the northern suburb of Sandton. Squatters could occupy some of these decrepit structures, but most were the tool of slumlords who allowed the poor and immigrants to fill the rooms and leave them disgusting wrecks. Our protagonist, Lucky Kunene, is lying bleeding in such a high rise, reflecting that his two heroes left him two quotes to live upon. Al Capone: “If you are going to steal, steal big.” Karl Marx: “All property is theft”. This is all you need to know about this uncommon gangster, as played by the charismatic Rapulana Seiphemo, but we are introduced nonetheless to his youth.
Stories about the New South Africa begin in Soweto 1994, when Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was elected President, and political freedom is all that matters. Well, this is a more practical film, and so we see that such freedom means precious little to anyone but friends of the new elite. People with political connections can help carve a place in the new black middle class. For everyone else, hustling is still the norm. It is noted, with great justification, that free enterprise is for the rich. Kunene eschews the Bible for the works of Carnegie as he applies and gains entry to business school. Ah, but there is no scholarship, and so scraping for the bills is no different despite the end goal. No school, no plan, and no real way through… our friend finds the way into crime. Such decisions are a matter of practicality, since his family subsists on bread, and who exactly wants to starve forever? If one method does not work, another one shall – enter Nazareth, a great character in service of a view in human nature. As played by Jeffrey Zekele, he commands respect with the presence of an oak. He provides an apprenticeship for our lead in the form of affirmative repossession. Carjacking, for those new to the city. In one hilarious scene, the man they jack is forced to teach them how to drive in order to deliver what must be the only Isuzu truck to the customer. Kunene is ushered into the world of crime with an unremittingly harsh montage that brings him into bank robberies where Nazareth announces the intention to rob one bank by executing two security guards with a bullet to the back each. This is exciting, but revolting, and the moral gravity of each murder weighs upon all involved, as it should. Fortunately, none of this is left simple, as even the innocent bystanders get involved in heists. If you want to make a buck, get a job where there is something to steal, as Kunene’s girlfriend works as a teller to inform thugs on the street who to attack. Throughout, Kunene is a wonderfully flawed character, never for a moment presenting something righteous that an audience could easily get behind. Nazareth is more complicated, as he trained as a fighter in exile (as did the upper echelons of the African National Congress), but is into drugs and guns while hiding behind his ‘revolutionary’ credentials. A clever comment on the supposedly righteous politicians running South Africa. As the bodies mount, our friend takes a job as an attendant at a petrol station, which is hardly a noble escape. Even the cops are involved, as they retaliate for the violent heists by exterminating criminals they arrest on sight. Admittedly, this was a fragile time in the New South Africa, when the justice system could scarcely contain a nation made ungovernable by the Freedom Movement of Mandela. There is no land more dangerous than a new democracy. And so the one last job that Kunene joins becomes a massacre – and we are lost in the Jozi jungle.
Jerusalema is a solid crime drama, entertaining while never becoming lost in the narrative or the action, as there are greater points to be made. Kunene is a taxi driver in Hillbrow, the most hazardous place in Johannesburg. For reference, District 9 was meant to reference this wild place. In the 1990s, there were a series of taxi wars, where taxi drivers and syndicates of drivers would engage in shootouts over route control. Jerusalema captures this with vivid detail as the drivers are at each others’ throats in what appears a sea of minibus taxis like roaches on a drug house floor. He is jacked, and in a breathless chase through the streets of a township, he barely escapes the men who thrived on leaving bodies in their wake. This is the last straw as our hero’s journey comes to its apex. Lucky Kunene does something truly frightening – he applies for a bank account and license for a nonprofit corporation. The man has had enough, and here is where Lucky Kunene comfortably enters the realm of a true badass. He despises what he is and what he has become, and is desperate to find a way through to something true. This is reasonable, as even scraping by is deadly expensive, and whatever you save will be stolen from you. He develops a hatred for the gangsters, the drug dealers, the brothels that surround and become the very place in which families try to live. He creates the Hillbrow People’s Housing Trust, in a balls-out Communist plan to seize control of the slums. Kunene organizes entire neighborhoods, storms the high-rise complexes that house the druglords, and throw the motherfuckers out (often through windows to their death), expel the pimps and hookers, and bans the dealers under penalty of death for them and the fucker standing next to them. And here is where it gets interesting – they collect rent and negotiate for a lower rent on behalf of the tenants, and then hold out against the slumlords who benefited greatly from misery. You see, there is no such legal concept as theft of fixed assets (Kunene has an entertaining legal counsel, for true), so the court order to expel them and all the tenants will take 1-2 years. The landlords will eventually lose all their money, be forced to sell, and the Hillbrow People’s Housing Trust picks it up for a few bills. That this is awesome goes without saying. I should mention that Lucky Kunene is a fictional character; he does not exist, or else he would be an international icon. Nonetheless, this is cracking entertainment, not only for the clever setup, but for the cynically uncompromising fall of such an aspiration.
All great ideas must go to die, and so it is for our protagonist, but not before we cross another boundary. Kunene despises the utter compromise of his surroundings, and longs for something resembling moral purity. In a fascinating subplot, he runs into a white girl who is looking to deliver a ransom to rescue her brother from a kidnapping. However improbable, it allows Lucky to consider doing an absolute good against the backdrop of his full time job which involves overseeing the routine murder of dealers and pimps while collecting fat rent checks. His actions are honorable, but surely you would not begrudge him a living? How about a lucrative one? The moral shades of gray run riot here, in a story that refuses to be simple. In any case, he performs a rescue that would likely have gotten that white girl killed; although the kid who was trapped was just a junkie on a high who owed some money. Still, this allows Kunene a chance to see life from a more straightforward point of view. After all, those who live in the northern suburbs with this girl seldom need to resort to objectionable means to earn a living. Such clarity can be comforting. Louise lives in a white suburb of fear from the dangerous city center; she admits “poverty has its charms”. Fair enough, as Lucky returns the favor by finding the charms in safety and her white family. This is an uncomfortable alliance, as is everything in the Rainbow Nation.
As our story reaches its crescendo, the cops go on the attack as the wealthy landlords are offended. The drug dealers expelled by Kunene retaliate by corrupting his allies and infiltrating his buildings. The police invade his high rises and find drugs and prostitution, which is anything but surprising given his distraction in the burbs. The dealers exact their pound of flesh, and Lucky retaliates in the only way he can with great bloodshed of friend and foe alike. In this sense, Jerusalema is an almost painfully honest action film, shooting holes in the only relatable character available, and seeming to regard us as naive for thinking there were an alternative. Sure, his dream to find a living while taking down unfair property practices, the immigrants who seek to destroy their adopted country, the dealers who sell to anyone with the right cash, and the thieves who render any concept of ownership moot – some part of this is a reasonable goal despite the insanity of it all. In the coda, he reads from the Bible he regards with utter contempt – “May my right hand forget its skill…” Even religious texts have some relevance after all. One could see this as a philosophical melange of incompatible ideas, and yet they seem to work, as hybrids are apt. Sort of like the New South Africa, with its mixture of Afrikaners who regard blacks as livestock, the blacks who regard whites as hateful cartoons, the Zulu who despise the Tswana, the immigrants who live amidst the ‘natives’ who are all immigrants of the past thousand years, and the land that hopes to absorb them all into an uncertain future. Our proud Communist who has the strongest of Capitalist tendencies reflects on – of all people – P.W. Botha… “Adapt or die.” Perhaps the less cohesive the ideas, the more illuminating the conclusion. Maybe there was no way to forge a truly unique path to power in the real world, but one can admire a person for trying. And apparently, some of Jozi’s citizens have tried to do something along these lines. Jerusalema is a sprawling action epic that regards the forces of capitalism in sobering adult fashion, while having a tremendous amount of fun in the most cynical of settings. This film was offered along with Tsotsi for Best Foreign Language Film. I think Jerusalema would have been a better choice.