The lost legacy of South Africa’s first black action movie
23 May 2019
Ken Gampu as Joe Bullet. (SBS)
The 1970s was a key time in the history of black cinema. In the US what we now call the “Blaxploitation” movement kicked off in 1971 with the one-two punch of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Gordon Parks’ Shaft ushering in a new era of movies aimed at – and, crucially, often made by – African Americans.
Importantly, these two films also gave black audiences a new type of heroic role model: violent, virile, hostile to authority and beholden to both their own communities and own sense of justice – a heightened, somewhat mythologised response to the political and cultural pressures of the time.
Unbeknownst to Van Peebles, Parks or indeed anyone in the American film scene, on the other side of the world a similar celluloid hero was emerging for black South Africans. While Harlem had John Shaft and Los Angeles had Sweetback, Soweto township had Joe Bullet.
To watch the trailer click on the image above.
The only directorial offering from cinematographer Louis de Witt, Joe Bullet centres on the titular hero, played by Ken Gampu (Zulu Dawn, The Wild Geese). When local soccer team The Eagles suffer a series of mysterious attacks in the week leading up to a championship match, Joe is on the case. The taciturn tough guy proceeds to punch his way through a series of action sequences, eventually mounting a rescue mission to win back not only the team’s two star players, but also love interest Beauty (singer Abigail Kubeka).
In terms of storyline it’s pretty straightforward stuff, but this was one of the first South African films to feature an all-black cast, and it was certainly the only film to feature a character like Joe Bullet – a rugged, self-determined black man of action who fought hard, drove fast and got the girl in the end. As the film’s writer and producer, Tonie van der Merwe, later recalled, “At that time there were no black feature films being produced in South Africa, and I suppose it was subconsciously logical to go for the potentially bigger market. I wanted to make an action movie that would entertain. The idea of a black James Bond fitted all the criteria, thus giving birth to Joe Bullet, kinship through the initials JB.”
Seeing such a figure on the screen must have left quite a mark on the black South Africans who saw the film. It certainly made an impression on the country’s Publications Board; after only two or three screenings (accounts vary) at Soweto’s Eyethu Cinema in 1972 or 1973 (again, accounts vary), the film was summarily banned. History fails to record the exact reason given, but it’s safe to guess that a heroic black character who operates completely outside of white authority was viewed as unacceptable by the racist government at the time. The ban on the film was lifted a year later on appeal, but by that point the local distributor had lost faith; the entire thing was shelved.
‘Joe Bullet’ was restored 40 years after its last screening in 1973. It may have remained a lost film if it weren’t for a chance meeting between van der Merwe and Ben Cowley of the Cape Town-based entertainment company, Gravel Road Entertainment in 2013. While discussing another potential collaboration, van der Merwe revealed that he still had the original 35mm print of Joe Bullet in his garage. Cowley and Gravel Road undertook the momentous task of restoring the film, eventually using a second rediscovered print to fill in gaps where the original was too degraded for rehabilitation. The restored film premiered at 2014’s Durban Film Festival, before going on to play at other festivals around the world, including the 2015 Sydney Film Festival.
Looking at it now, it’s easy to get hung up on Joe Bullet’s roughness and obvious lack of budget. The plot is simple, the camera work rudimentary and the dialogue, all recorded separately over a year after initial filming, is often out of synch. Yet the film possesses an energy and vibrancy that is irresistible. Like the Blaxploitation and Bond films that inspired it, it’s fun, cool and defiant – an attitude that resonates with audiences far more than any anti-apartheid dirge ever could. Viewed in the context of both its production and its place in history, Joe Bullet is a landmark piece of world cinema.