Bishai transforms the past into a vessel for storytelling, opening with a prologue that relays to us that the story we are about to see unfold is the tale of Muntu Ndebele’s (Wandile Molebatsi’s) journey from actor to thief. The theme of storytelling is woven into the fabric of the film as Bishai tailors his drama to the belief that stories are intrinsically weaved into the fabric of the everyday. With this thought to mind perhaps its title refers not to a million shades but rather to the multitude of stories of which a country is threaded together with; a series of stories that paint the portrait of the past.
Similarly to the re-emergence of AIDS/HIV onscreen through Dallas Buyers Club, Fire in the Blood and How to Survive a Plague, A Million Colours, alongside its contemporaries Mandela and documentary Plot for Peace, finds cinema engaging in a discussion of this chapter of history. This shows cinema as an art form interested in the past, and if science-fiction afford film its foresight, films such as A Million Colours afford film its hindsight. Alongside Mandela and Plot for Peace, this set of films form an intriguing trilogy, each inspired by the story of a real life character, but each with an alternative focus on the past. If Mandela is the figurehead of South African history, A Million Colours along with Plot for Peace break the Mandela-centric focus and instead explore the same stage or the area surrounding the stage.
Muntu’s story serves as an introduction to two characters whose two stories allow the film to blossom – best friend Norman Knox (Jason Hartman) and love interest Sabela (Masello Motana). Through the personal story of each of these characters windows are opened for us to gaze through, each of which offers a unique perspective. Whilst Norman’s story depicts the struggle for those White South African’s sympathetic to the Black cause, Sabela’s story opens the film up to the immediate question of the fate of traditional customs in the new South Africa.
If film is crafted from the palette of the artist then Bishai mixes the primary colours to create these shades within its thematic structure that explore the personal within the shadow of the national story, where the simple distinction of White South African versus Black South African is blurred. This focus on the personal takes us behind the scenes of the Mandela-centric stage of South African history, revealing the turmoil where hate, power and greed were the rival to a peaceful, just and equal future. At the heart of Bishai’s drama the struggle for power is the ghost that stalks the future whilst warning of how the consideration of personal survival and selfish agendas come with the winds of change. Bishai is interested in breaking through siple distinctions between good and evil, justice or injustice to paint a more detailed picture of the complex web of change and the conflict that must come first even on the most personal level.
The opening of the film finds smiles and laughter adorning the face of our title character. The word change echoes in the introductory scenes, but the one glaring realisation that inevitably arises is that none of these young idealistic or even carefree characters can understand the chaotic and bloody future that will unfold before change occurs. Before change comes the struggle for change and it is a struggle that contributes a significant and lengthy chapter to the book that is the story of their lives.
On one hand an immersive and powerful drama, on the other it can feel too saccharine in moments, particularly in the early scenes which lead to a tonal conflict. Nevertheless it is one that commands our attention, and even its lead Wandile Molebatsi, who at first seem a misfit quickly earns our respect. If A Million Colours has a story of its own it is that it’s charm emerges slowly. One may look to the presence of Molebatsi who in moments anchors the film in a raw emotional and physical intensity, but one offset by an appreciation of graceful silence where words are replaced with a stare or an expression. If the hero is only as strong as the villain, then Stelio Savante’s Major Sean Dixon and Mpho Osei Tutu’s Bomba offer Muntu two compelling yet distinct antagonists to set his heroic moral struggle against.
For some A Million Colours will invoke a sense of frustration in its approach to historical events and politics, particularly in regards to there being no visible sighting of Mandela or the political wrangling. But this a dramatization of three characters caught in the whirlwind of change. It is a tale of the exploration of morality, self-sacrifice, integrity and the conviction of one’s belief system. To those with an open mind it will offer a rich exploration of the past, but it is one that requires an appreciation of telling the story of the personal to take us inside the past, and bring child film star Muntu’s story to life.
Presented by T.D Jakes the film is scheduled for US and world-wide release in 2014.