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  • South African Cinema and Its Depiction of Race, Gender, and Class:Portrayals of Black Women in Post-Apartheid South African Films
  • Gilbert Motsaathebe

The history of film production in South Africa shows that films made during the periods of colonialism and apartheid generally served as tools to further the ideals and consolidate the hegemony of the colonial and apartheid governments of the time. These films were characterized by portrayals of Black people in general, and Black women in particular, in ways that can be considered problematic. Keyan Tomaselli notes that most films produced in South Africa during the apartheid era showed very little emphasis, if at all, on grass-roots problems experienced by South Africans. However, there was also a significant anti-apartheid film tradition that was suppressed inside South Africa. Any film that attempted to challenge the status quo or deal with "the lives and the struggle of the people" (Botha 185) was banned, and the producers were harassed or exiled. For instance, Gibsen Kente, a Black filmmaker who produced the film How Long Must We Suffer (1976), was arrested in the year of the film's production. Films produced by Blacks were generally banned, as was the case with Mapantsula (1988) which was "one of the first truly South African films made from a Black point of view" (Botha 94). The dissuasion of an active Black film industry in favour of films produced by Whites for Black audiences was, according to Botha, one of the significant devices used to restrict any form of content that challenged the hegemony of apartheid. It is therefore important to examine the new waves of post-apartheid films that appear progressive in terms of their portrayal of and reflections on South Africa, in order to determine whether these films challenge [End Page 381] the stereotypical images of Black women that were promoted during the colonial and apartheid periods.

This article focuses on three of the most popular commercial films that seem to provide the lens from which to examine post-apartheid issues in South Africa: Tsotsi, Yesterday, and Jerusalema. These films were produced between 2004 and 2008, the five years following the first decade of democracy in South Africa. This interregnum period provides an indication of South Africa's success, or lack thereof, in tackling post-apartheid issues such as inequality and oppression, including gender, class, and race relations, and how these relations are envisioned on film within a framework of the country's violent past.

Theoretical and Methodological Considerations

Gramsci's theory of hegemony is useful in this discussion because of his argument that the dominant class gains limited consent, achieved via ideological manipulation, from the subordinate class, bearing in mind that ideological contest is always present. According to Leslie Baker-Kimmons, "[t]he use of Gramsci's theory of ideological hegemony supports the argument that negative Black images, as the expression of ideological hegemony, aid in the justification and reinforcement of Blacks occupying the lowest strata of society, as well as impede the development of class consciousness" (4). Patriarchy is similarly an important part of hegemonic ideology, and in this sense, the media can easily be used as a hegemonic device to ensure that the marginalized are less likely to question the injustice of their position.

Examining Black women as represented in post-apartheid South African films inevitably involves the concept of representation, in which aspects of reality, such as gender, race, or class, serve writers, producers, and directors in constructing texts and creating meanings for the audience. In this sense, film becomes a site in which certain aspects of reality are featured and others are not. Stuart Hall sees representation as, essentially, the production of meaning through signifying systems such as language and images. For Hall, representation is a process that takes place at two levels; for instance, the images that we carry in mind (our own world) are referent points that give meaning to the texts we encounter. These referent points are the first level, and the interpretation we attach to the texts is the second level. Seen in this way, representation becomes a twofold process with the signifier imposing meaning on the receivers, who in...


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pp. 381-395
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