The significance of Akin Omotoso’s romantic comedy “Tell me sweet something”

It is telling that the four top-grossing South African movies of all time are all films in which the actor and director Leon Schuster (who made a career out of doing broad slapstick candid camera movies) wears blackface. Also telling is the fact that South African critics barely notice this as an offense (for example, check this reviewer.) It’s no secret that what passes for South African cinema is not representative of the population. (“South African film” effectively exists on television.) In reality, the South African film industry mostly exists as a cheap location for Hollywood and Euro budget films and commercials. Nevertheless, once a black filmmaker enters the system and gets past the money phase, they need to get their films seen. But apart from festival screenings, it is still hard to crack the distribution dilemma. Visit any South African multiplex on any given weekend and look for the local content. Usually not much, unless it is set in an English boarding school or its an Afrikaans musical comedy (mostly thinly disguised rip offs of Hollywood musicals), and you won’t find dramas exploring the social world of the country’s black majority. The rationale is usually “there wasn’t an audience for black South African films.” Last year the South African filmmaker Akin Omotoso–on his previous output, see here–set out to challenge this status quo when he released his romantic comedy, ‘Tell Me Sweet Something.’ The film was a departure for Omotoso, who is known for the hard-hitting social realism of ‘God is African’ and ‘Man on Ground.’ In this feature, a refreshing take on Johannesburg as a place of romance, Omotoso takes a page out of the rom-com playbook and aims for a wide South African audience. Here’s what happened. Below we republish Akin’s public letter on his experience followed by a profile of Akin by Danielle Bowler who has contributed here before–Dylan Valley, Sean Jacobs.

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Open Letter by Akin Omotoso

Dear Stakeholders,

I am writing this email to bring you up to speed on the situation regarding the movie Tell Me Sweet Something currently in cinemas.

Please permit me a bit of background. In the process of raising funds for this romantic comedy, we are constantly told there wasn’t an audience for black South African films. Our response was, we don’t think the right kind of films are being made for black audiences. Instead of the constant problematizing of black lives we wanted to give audience a positive experience a film about successful, handsome black people falling in love in Joburg, a Joburg re-imagined as a city of love. In other words we set out to disprove this myth.

Tell Me Sweet Something opened on the 4th of September on 47 screens and in five days had reached the million Rand mark and was the number three ranked film by screen average. This article by Destiny testifies to its success. As does this article that first appeared in City Press on Sunday 20th of September.

Films traditionally drop about 40/50% in their second weekend. Tell Me Sweet Something dropped by 23% and finished at no. 5.

Having made the economic case for films like Tell Me Sweet Something, we found ourselves reduced from 47 screens in our third week to 27 screens. Despite this drop in the number of screens Tell Me Sweet Something remained in the Top 10 at no. 10 and still performed better than some of the new titles.

The exhibitor states that it was taken out of sites where the film was not performing and this is totally understandable. However it has now started to be taken out of key sites such as Gateway and Sandton, where the film is performing extremely well, this will have a big impact on the films bottom line. When asked why it was being taken out of site, this was the reply from Mr. Clive Fisher the GM of AcquisitIons and Scheduling replied,

I understand the film is still performing at Sandton, however with only 10 screens and the amount of titles releasing every week we do not have space for the title anymore.

I had another look to try and see if we could load a few shows for the film but unfortunately there is no space.

Sorry.

Thanks

So I’m writing this letter to you to highlight the struggle local films face when trying to build economic arguments. What is the point of an Emerging Filmmaker’s Initiative to boost the industry if this is the response to a film that is performing well? What is the point of local filmmakers growing audiences for our content when the decision to move successful films from key sites is treated like this? What is the point of all the effort the team from Tell Me Sweet Something have put into filling cinemas, when this is the response we get.

This action perpetuates the myth that black films do not do well. What Tell Me Sweet Something began to demonstrate in its first two weeks was that this is not in fact the case.

We need your help to get the exhibitors to re-think their decisions to remove the film from its well performing sites, and to not just treat this as another film, but to contribute to the advancement of South African film in general and to give Black films a fair chance in particular.

What we‘re appealing for is a change in attitude. We will not have economic success if the exhibitor does not change its attitude to black films that are performing well, to understand that it’s the responsibility of us all Filmmakers and Exhibitors to transform the cinema landscape in this country.

 

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“Akin Omotoso’s Hustle” by Danielle Bowler

Akin Omotoso is standing at the top of the escalators.

I gather my cool, calm my inner stan, and prepare to walk past him. It’s Monday night in Johannesburg and I’m at Rosebank’s The Zone cinema to watch his new film Tell Me Sweet Something, starring Maps Maponyane and Nomzamo Mbatha. A cloud of hype has surrounded the film, and I am curious about whether it will envelop me in its excited air, or merely dissipate the moment my eyes make contact with the colossal screen.

In that moment, however, my eyes are locked on the five-inch screen of my Samsung S4, as I try to find something to avert my attention from the fact that Khaya Motene, Akin’s Generations alter-ego, is a few meters away from where I’m standing.

Aimlessly pacing and waiting for my friends to arrive, I sink into my oversize army-green jacket, observing Akin from a distance. My cool is disrespectfully deserting me, because, my brain is constantly repeating one refrain: “Akin Omotoso is at the top of the escalators,” like the exasperating chorus of a paint-by-numbers Top 40 song that I can’t ignore.

To every passing person, he calls out variations of one question: “What film are you watching? Are you watching my film? ‘Are you watching Tell Me Sweet Something?,” in that familiar baritone. Someone hesitantly responds that they are about to see the feted Southpaw, a story of a troubled boxer trying to get his life and career back on track. Akin responds: “Jake Gyllenhall doesn’t need your money.” I laugh, and fire off a text to my tardy friends.

And it’s true. To date, the globally released Southpaw has grossed $52,169,310 so far, shown in thousands of theatres. A dizzying number. Jake Gyllenhall doesn’t need our money. In South Africa, it has apparently taken $119,313 at the box office, while the same site claims Tell Me Sweet Something has seen a $157,391 return. Its open weekend grossed over close to R1 million, with the film currently closing in on the R2 million mark.

But it’s been cut to 19 screens, from an initial 47.

This week discussions about the local film industry and the structures that support it, or rather don’t, have erupted, spurred on by conversations around Omotoso’s film and concerns about it being removed from cinemas where it was performing well, particularly in Johannesburg’s Sandton and Durban’s Gateway shopping centers.

Ster Kinekor representatives have allegedly countered this claim over email to Omotoso, claiming the film was only removed from cinemas where it was not performing well, with a representative saying: “I understand the film is still performing in Sandton, however with only 10 screens and the amount of titles releasing every week, we do not have space for the title anymore. I had another look to try and see if we could load a few shows for the film, but unfortunately there is no space. Sorry. Thanks.” Support for the film and the local industry, from a distributor’s perspective, seem to be driven by business concerns. “Sorry. Thanks” seems an indifferent synonym for a resolutely delivered “shem for you.”

Frank Ocean lyrics ricochet through my head as a kind of internal rallying call, as I read those words: “Please recondition yourself / It’s not just money.” I start to wonder about how we are sometimes blind to things that are beyond our perspective or the world we move in, which so comfortably accommodates the few it is built for. Frank croons through my consciousness, philosophizing: “why see the world, when you got the beach, and the sweet life.” I nod my head in agreement.

This is what we mean when we say that things are structural, which can often sound like academese – that language spoken solely by the academy, which is insular and exclusionary, even if it’s an unintended consequence. The structures that are designed to support or run various industries, cemented over centuries, cannot address what would be involved in truly developing, growing and taking seriously the local film industry and audiences, if they run on the idea that they operate in a meritocracy. When they assume local and international films exist in the same world and environment, able to stand side-by-side and succeeding on the same terms and conditions, they miss how the scales are unequally weighted. These films cannot be treated equally, in an environment where Jake Gyllenhall and the makers of Southpaw and other economic centres of the global industry don’t need our money, but Akin Omotoso and others really do.

The familiar, vanilla centre still holds, and we move to its beat, trying to attune it to the rhythms of our frenetic dance. But it was never calibrated to hear the frequencies we operate on.

Kagiso Lediga and Refilwe Modiselle are standing outside the cinema, ready to interact with the exiting audience, as we step outside our cinematic sojourn, into the stark lights of the Cinema Prestige foyer. Seeing the two supporting thespians appear before me, as if they apparated from the celluloid world to reality in a split-second creates a strange kind of pleasurable dissonance. Another one of Akin’s unique marketing strategies. It’s hyperreal. They interact with the viewers, takes pictures with us and discuss our opinions on the film, inviting both critique and praise. We share our views, punctuated by the haze of having just viewed it and it only having partially condensed in our minds.

The film did not reinvent the rom-com genre, but operated within its neatly scripted confines, albeit in stunning high-definition, centralizing Joburg’s gentrified inner-city areas of Maboneng and Braamfontein. Nomzamo Mbatha has a natural ease to the way she performs, filling the role of the moody writer, Moratiwa, trying to write “the great African love story” like slipping into a second skin. But I’m caught up in Thomas Gumede’s scene-stealing performance as the hilarious side-kick Gordon, Thembi Seete’s on-screen effervescence as Lola: a foil to Moratiwa’s seriousness and Thishiwe Ziqubu’s extreme comfort and believability on camera as Moratiwa’s best friend Tshaka – not to mention arresting beauty.

The musician in me, however, is preoccupied with how Omotoso centralised South African music in the film, and I comment on how much I enjoyed hearing Shekinah Donnell and Kyle Deutsch playing through the standard emotional climax of the rom-com. Akin smiles and nods.

There is a silent, inner dance of delight at seeing familiar surroundings and hearing familiar voices on screen, as well as watching a narrative about love headed up by black characters play out. As I think about it, it reminds me of an article about US television in an unprecedented era punctuated by Lee Daniels’ Empire and Shonda Rhyme’s well, everything, which commented on a time gone by “When You Had To Flip To The Back Page Of ‘Jet’ To Find Black People On TV.” Some things are shifting, but many are remaining the same, particularly the rules of the game in our location, which keep Jake Gyllenhaal and people who look like him and have similar GPS coordinates rolling in cinematic cash dollar.

Akin explains the politics involved in making the film later, at the bottom of another set of escalators. It’s past 11pm, and we have been talking for over an hour. He talks us through the creative ways he sourced funding for the film, how Theodore Witcher’s Love Jones is embedded in its inception, animatedly taking us through the process of rehearsals and improvisation and providing a backdrop to the one hour and thirty minutes of cinema that we just viewed. We laugh about his unorthodox, hustler approach to getting people to see his film, as he tells us that he personally attends many screenings, trying to drive sales. My cool is slowly returning, but I’m a little in awe of that dedication, which colours how I start to see the film – as a necessary and important intervention, even if positioned in a comfortable, money-spinning genre and not flaw-free.

*This post is part of a new regular series on Africa is a Country called #MovieNight

Africa is a Country

Not the continent with 54 countries.

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