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If Invictus is a film on one side of the political spectrum, Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu sits firmly on the other. Uncompromising in its politics, the South African-made film about struggle stalwart Solomon Mahlangu (Thabo Rametsi) holds no punches in its retelling of the violence of the apartheid regime.
The film follows Mahlangu as he struggles with his political identity in 1970s South Africa. The young man is shown as a loving son, brother and boyfriend who cares deeply for the happiness of the ones he loves. Mahlangu works hard for his money, and avoids conflict at all costs.
But when he skips the march on Soweto in June 1976, he finds that there is no safety for him in a country that demonises his existence. Kalushi follows his story until the moment his life ends, incurring the death penalty for a crime he didn’t commit.
Mandla Dube makes his directorial debut with the ambitious feature. Dube, who has worked as a cinematographer for years, displays a powerful political vision — but he gets carried away by visual opportunities. It is because of this that the film struggles to find its footing at first.
The first half of Kalushi is difficult to follow — Dube tries to pack a lot into the beginning, including special effects and varying musical genres that, while beautiful, don’t mesh well with the rest of the film. The audience is thrown from one style to the next, and it’s difficult to invest in characters when having to readjust so often.
Kalushi follows the story of Solomon Mahlangu until the moment his life ends, incurring the death penalty for a crime he didn’t commit
But all that fades away when Dube finds his political footing. The moment Solomon Mahlangu decides he needs to fight is the moment Kalushi is turned into a powerhouse of a film. All signs of indecisive storytelling are pushed aside, and the film flourishes.
Kalushi moves from strength to strength as it tells of Mahlangu’s uMkhonto weSizwe training and subsequent trial. From heartfelt performances to beautiful scoring, the film knows how to hold its viewers’ attention. But what makes Kalushi remarkable is Dube’s emphasis of Solomon Mahlangu’s love — love for his family, love for his friends, and love for his nation. There is no mistaking Dube’s intent here: violence in the name of love is necessary for true freedom.
The film couldn’t have been released at a more pertinent time. With South African students still fighting for free education, many parallels have been drawn to the 1976 protests. Violence and disruption as a way of enforcing change is a topic for debate in South Africa’s political climate, and Dube is making his side of the argument clear.
Solomon Mahlangu’s final speech comes right after his sentence is read. Rametsi holds the audience’s attention in a stronghold as he delivers a call to action: as long as the people want it, freedom will always be attainable. All they need do is fight.
Kalushi works because it is uncompromising in its argument. Instead of beating around the bush for the sake of the Rainbow Nation ideal, Dube lays out his side with unflinching sincerity. And it doesn’t matter on which side of the debate you’re on: what Kalushi does well is keep conversation going.
I doubt even one person is going to leave the cinema without feeling the full weight of the story and what it puts at stake.
Verdict: Kalushi is a film every South African needs to watch; it’s powerful and thought-provoking in a way that films about our troubled past often shy away from. It also doesn’t hurt to support our local filmmakers.