Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (review)

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Amandla means “power” in the Xhosa language, and when people talk about the power of music, this is it, right here: the power to sustain the spirit of a people through a long and harsh period of oppression, and the power to eventually help throw over the oppressors. Documentarian Lee Hirsch makes an extraordinary feature film debut with this exploration of the role music played in defeating the apartheid government of South Africa — I hate to resort to clichés like “uplifting” and “inspiring,” but I was swaying in my seat and fighting down an enormous lump in my throat by the end of this tremendously moving film, so what the hell. A native Long Islander, Hirsch lived in Johannesburg for five years while making this film, interviewing world-famous musicians, including singer Miriam Makeba and trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and complete unknowns alike, combining their reminiscences of the role music played in their fight for freedom with archival footage of the apartheid years. The result is intimate and often heartbreaking, suffused with songs and tunes so potent you have no doubt they were the ruin of evil and the voice of a nonviolent opposition that fomented a revolution. When Hirsch talks to piggish former apartheid cops who laugh uneasily about how they were terrified to be confronted with hundreds of people dancing and singing in protest, you can believe it: there’s such vivacity and determination in the music — and still today it continues to embody the essence of South Africa — that it seems to have the might to move mountains.

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