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(Please note that "Drum" will be screened as part of The 13th New York African Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center on April 29th and May 1. For more information, check out: http://www.filmlinc.com/.)
In 1951, South Africa had its own cut-rate version of the Harlem Renaissance. In Sophiatown, a black township, writers, singers, gangsters, and immigrant shop owners all held their own. Another attraction was that folks of every epidermal coloring could commingle there.
Within this potpourri of exuberance, fancifulness, and limited freedoms, Jim Bailey (Jason Flemyng), heir to a British mining family, starts a magazine, "Drum," that employs a collection of highly talented, hard-drinking, hard-living black writers. As one states, "No news is good news; no booze, on the other hand, is bad news."
The most talented, and the most consequential, man on the magazine's masthead is Henry Nxumalo (Taye Diggs), a womanizing, often inebriated, journalist whose articles supply quality escapism to its readers. He is so good at his job, and his byline so associated with the magazine, that he soon becomes known as Mr. Drum.
This the story of how Mr. Drum becomes radicalized, and places his family's security and his own life on the line to explore the abominations of apartheid.
At the urging of his wife (Tumisho Masha) to turn his talents from covering the trivial to the everyday travails his fellow blacks must face ("You're better than that. You have a voice. Use it."), Mr. Drum goes undercover. First, he finds himself getting whipped in a "slave camp" at Bethal Farm. Then he fakes drunkenness and gropes a white woman to get arrested in order to expose Johannesburg's prison system atrocities.
But Mr. Drum goes too far in the eyes of the government when he plans to expose the dismantling of Sophiatown to make way for housing for the whites. As Moira McPartlin notes in a review of a book on Nxumalo (<http://www.laurahird.com/newreview/whokilledmrdrum.html>):
"The Blacks were treated in the same manner as a dog who might be evicted from his kennel to allow a summerhouse to be erected in the owner's garden. Family homes were simply disposed of. As the political situation worsened, 'Drum' [magazine] highlighted these injustices to the outside world and took the fight to a global stage."
Diggs, a talented, astonishingly beautiful actor, who has constantly had to fight his beefcake image -- after all in his first film, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," he was the goodies bag – again proves his versatility. He is charismatic and believable, whether accepting bribes in the form of a suit from a local hood or running for his life in the South African outback.
The entire cast is, in fact, uniformly excellent, especially Gabriel Mann as Nxumalo's sidekick photographer and Masha as his wife. As for the direction and screenplay, there are those few moments where the dialogue becomes a bit trite or dogmatic, the Biopic Malaise Syndrome, but they are far and in-between.
"Drum" is more often a harrowing, enlightening venture where "We live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse," sadly isn't just a throwaway line uttered early in a bar scene. It's an epigraph.
Director: Zola Maseko
Writer: Jason Filardi
Cast: Taye Diggs, Gabriel Mann, Jason Flemyng, Tumisho Masha, Moshidi Motshegwa, Bonnie Mbuli, Tessa Jaye
Copyright © Brandon Judell 2006
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