The new South African family film

The idea that a post-racial South Africa can only be achieved through the adoption of white ideals, culture, and norms by black South Africans.

A still from "Felix"

The South African family film, “Felix!,” premiered earlier this year at the Durban International Film Festival, before making the rounds on the international film festival circuit. It tells the story of a young boy, Felix Xaba, who lives in an unspecified township in the Cape Town environs (it looks like Langa). As for his first name, Felix, is named after his mother’s employer, Felix Soames, a wealthy, white man for whom his mother works as a domestic laborer. Felix  gets a scholarship to an elite (read: white) private school (the set resembles SACS and Bishops) after his namesake pulls some strings and the all-white admissions committee makes their requisite condescending remarks. Felix aspires to be a great jazz saxophonist like his late father, much to his mother’s chagrin. Already adept at playing the penny whistle, Felix soon recruits two of his father’s former band-mates to teach him how to read music and play the sax in time for his school’s jazz concert.

Here’s the trailer:

“Felix!” was directed Roberta Durrant and written by Shirley Johnston — two ‘liberal’ white South African women. Durrant built a career making laugh-track sitcoms for South African public television, while Johnson, who lectures at a Cape Town film school, wrote for local soap opera “Isidingo.”

The film’s reception among festival, South African, and mainstream audiences has been good, with the work being described as ‘hopeful‘ and ‘Billy Elliot with Cape Jazz.‘ It won the Audience Award at the Durban International Film Festival, among other awards. It is however oozing with tokenism, condescension, misguided liberalism, and deeply, deeply problematic white South African Victorian and Christian-influenced fantasies of their post-apartheid society. It’s a film you’re supposed to take children to, but on many levels it is more disturbing and insidious than even the most adult works of cinema. This is a good, old-fashioned idyllic portrayals of Africa, Africans, and happy poverty.

Much like Durrant’s previous work, the film centers on the struggle of a black South African to fit into white South African society. In other words, the challenge the protagonist must face is that of integrating into a white world. Other than a seemingly drunk coloured man, the first people to speak in the film (and therefore the ones who set the tone for the rest of the film) are a team of white South Africans arguing over whether this black child should be admitted into their school. Hence, the liberal white vision of an acceptable new or ostensibly post-racial South Africa is one in which racial integration occurs on their terms. Treating white and non-white cultures as distinct units, the conundrum of liberal white South Africa lies in this idea that a post-racial society can only be achieved through the adoption of white South African ideals, culture, and norms by black South Africans.

Even though Felix’s mom cleans the house of a white man whose walls are covered in tacky ‘tribal art,’ who treats his dog more like a human being than the woman who cleans his floors, and makes her pose with African masks and spears, the director sees her film as having nothing to do with race and her white protagonists as respectful of their non-white compatriots. When asked in an interview whether the film takes on racial issues due to Felix’s mother’s job as a domestic servant for a white man, Roberta Durrant responded:

No, the film is not about racial differences in society since Minister Dondolo who has a high social position is a black man. And the situation that a black woman is cleaning a white man’s house is completely normal, but it is also ordinary that a black woman is cleaning a black man’s house. What always matters is to treat the people around you with respect, no matter if they are black or white. And in “Felix,” Mr. Soames treats Felix’ mother very respectfully and supportively. What is more an issue in the film is the difference between upper and lower class in South Africa: Felix who comes from an unprivileged social class gets the chance to show his talent and to live his dream.

I think Ms. Durrant does a better job of exposing the sort of flawed “postracial” politics and blissful ignorance that underscores this film than I ever could, so I’ll leave this quote alone for now. Suffice it to say that I feel this film falls way short of hopeful. It is an interesting study of the white, liberal South African psyche and visions of society, if nothing else.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.