Politicians Don’t Cry: Red Dust (2004)

Welcome to part 4 of my mini-series on South African films! Up for review this week is Red Dust, a not-so-well-known British film directed by Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech and Elizabeth I fame. Don’t get me wrong–I did enjoy those two movies. But Hooper was also responsible for the absolute catastrophe that was 2012’s Les Misérables. I am completely serious when I say that it is one of the worst films I have ever seen, which is a shame, because as Lisa’s heartfelt review of the novel proved, it’s a classic tale about “pure human kindness.” So, that said, I am not surprised that Red Dust failed to live up to its potential.

red dust movie poster

To be honest, this movie would have been greatly improved without the presence of Hilary Swank. I thought Swank was excellent in Million Dollar Baby and Boys Don’t Cry, but I am at a loss to explain her utter lack of acting ability in Red DustHer performance is cringeworthy; she takes lines that are already verging on the overdramatic and, in her barely-explained-away American accent, butchers them. In addition to the terrible acting, Swank was obviously cast because 1). presumably she would make the film more appealing to American audiences; and 2). she has a great body. She does. She looks fabulous in the film. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that if she had driven around South Africa in a BMW with the top down, and then proceeded to walk around by herself in kitten heels in a skin-tight dress with her hair blown out clutching an expensive handbag, she would have been mugged in about 0.1 seconds. Utterly. unrealistic. The astoundingly small-minded decision to involve Swank purely for her “sex appeal” also degraded the film’s serious subject matter. Swank aside, this film has many merits. It covers the fraught (not that there is really any period of time in South Africa’s history that hasn’t been fraught) period of time immediately after Nelson Mandela was elected President and the African National Congress assumed political dominance over the country. Under the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995, the new government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a unique “criminal court” in which perpetrators of violence during apartheid had to confess their crimes publicly in order to be granted amnesty. The key, of course, was full and total honesty. Many of the trials took place in Cape Town, where Red Dust was also set. I went back through my South Africa photos and, amazingly, I’m pretty sure this is the same city hall in Cape Town that was featured in the film: 

city hall, Cape Town

Photo credit actually goes to my friend Mike, FYI

The movie tells the story of Alex Mpondo, a prominent politician in the African National Congress who was brutually tortured for 31 days by a policeman during apartheid. He is portrayed by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave fame. As you can imagine, Ejiofor does a beautiful job expressing pain, and is very convincing as a man who has been so beaten down and damaged that his memory returns to him only in bursts, which are often excruciating to recall. He’s clearly suffering from a severe case of something like PSTD, and gives a meaningful portrayal.

The actress who I was most impressed with, however, was Nomhlé  Nkyonyen, who played Mrs. Sizela–a mother grieving her long-dead son, a victim of apartheid. Her acting felt natural, believable; a stark contrast to the shamble that was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) trial in the film. The dissatisfaction in the film is only a fraction of the dissatisfaction and betrayal that millions of South Africans must have felt towards the Commission. There are many who believe, even today, that the TRC did not do enough. Though well-intentioned, it did not bring a strong sense of closure to the years of suffering perpetuated by the apartheid regime. 20 years later–as those attending the movie screening pointed out–South African society is tainted by residual anger and a strong sense of injustice.  I could spend more time criticizing describing the film, but I think that there are much better ways of learning about this period of time in South Africa’s history (i.e., 1996-2000, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was active). If you would like a metaphorical take on the subject, then Jane Taylor’s play Ubu and the Truth Commission is searing in its criticism of the TRC’s shortcomings. (I actually had the chance to interview Jane Taylor–posted here if you are curious and would like to read). The play doesn’t have the highest rating on Goodreads, but I suspect that’s because it’s somewhat confusing. In addition, the documentary Long Night’s Journey Into Day has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, though I haven’t personally watched it myself. Regardless, I can assure you that you will learn very little from watching Hilary Swank prance around in sunglasses and a crop-top. Overall rating (with Hilary Swank): C+ Potential rating (no Hilary Swank): B+ Next up is Tsosti, which I suspect will be much better. Check back next Thursday for the review! Cheers. P.S. Thank you again for all of the lovely comments on my last post! I was really quite hesitant about sharing it, but there was no reason to be. Everyone has a hair story, it seems 🙂

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17 thoughts on “Politicians Don’t Cry: Red Dust (2004)

    1. Oh there are actually still two films left! “Tsotsi” (review should be up tomorrow) and “Invictus” (review will go up next Thursday or Friday). But I will happily watch some South Korean films, I’ve hardly seen any of them!

      1. Oh! 2 films I’ve seen!! Yay! Lol…honestly I haven’t seen very many either… just Old Boy, Masquerade and Stoker (which is only directed by a Korean). I was hoping you could tell me what to watch. :p

  1. I find that for movies with serious subject matter there are few big name actors that can pull it off. Sometimes the actor’s fame just distracts from the story. In this case it seems like it’s even worse because she was shoehorned into the story. Shame because it seems like some interesting subject matter that could be explored in a better way if there wasn’t that drive to make it a money making film.

    1. Yes, that’s very true. Fame can distract from the story. I found that that was the case with “12 Years a Slave” – lots of super famous people playing tiny little roles, wanting to be a part of last year’s Best Picture! Brad Pitt’s little section was especially distracting. I think for really serious movies such as this one, it often helps to get lesser-known or even completely unknown actors who don’t bring a lot of baggage along with them to the story. Thanks for commenting!

  2. I’ve not seen or heard anything about this film but thanks for sharing. I’ve really enjoyed reading your South African film series. Onto something completely unrelated, I just noticed I wasn’t following you :/ I’m not sure how that happened but it’s all fixed now 🙂

    1. Oh, well I follow your blog over on bloglovin’, as that’s where I like to group together all of the beauty blogs I follow 🙂 But I’m perpetually logged into WordPress, so it’s very easy for me to leave comments over on Splishsplasch!
      I’m pleased to hear that you’re enjoying the South African film series 🙂 I have been enjoying watching them as well! And I think the next two films will be really good: Tsotsi and Invictus.

  3. Also, I’m a lifelong stutterer so The King’s Speech had me in tears by the end, and Elizabeth I was the only Elizabeth biopic I could ever watch without cringing and brandishing textbooks at the screen.

    1. Are you really? I’m glad to hear that the movie resonated with you! Colin Firth is so adorable, I have a hard time imagining how people could dislike him. He made a wonderful Mr. Darcy, too.

      And you know what? I haven’t actually seen Hooper’s “Elizabeth I” – I’ve seen the version with Cate Blanchett (which I thought was pretty good), but I haven’t watched the miniseries. I was confusing it with “The Queen”! It’s pretty funny to think that Helen Mirren has played both Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, though.

      1. How do people hate Colin Firth?? I thought he was universally adored (as he should be). I did like his Darcy but I thought the infamous diving in the lake scene was ridiculous.
        And yeah, the Helen Mirren biopic is really great, historically and psychologically accurate! And Helen Mirren is always a queen in my eyes 🙂

  4. Have been enjoying your series on SA films. However, this looks like one to skip. Too often, you see producers ignoring the potential audience for serious subject matter by going too Hollywood and ending up stuck in the middle with no audience at all. I’ve heard good things about “Tsotsi” and look forward to that review.

    1. Oh good, I’m glad you’ve been following it! I’ve been enjoying watching the movies—even this one. I do think you are fine skipping it, though. And I suspect that the “Hollywood effect” is why Aronofsky’s latest effort, Noah, has been so poorly received.

    1. To be honest, I think director Tom Hooper might have encouraged it to some degree! Elizabeth I, Les Mis, and The King’s Speech are all very dramatic movies (Elizabeth I in a mostly good way; Les Mis in an utterly awful way). I just hate it when they create a token “hot” character because they think it will make the movie do better at the box office. Sometimes, in action films with little substance to begin with, it doesn’t matter all that much—but it’s such a shame that they undermine movies like this one, which could be very good without that unnecessary aspect.

    1. Yes, it is a shame! I’m sure there are other films that deal with the subject matter well, though. And I’m also disappointed in Hilary Swank! Like I said, I thought she was really good in Million Dollar Baby and Boys Don’t Cry.

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