The new benchmark in South African cinema is ‘Happiness’

The comedy “Happiness Is A Four Letter Word” arrived amidst the celebration of a new kind of female subject in African films and television. Most of these media feature independent, glamorous, girl-power characters and borrow stylistically from “Sex in the City.” Recent examples include the Ghanaian web series “An African City,” slick Nollywood productions about “MILFS” and Akin Omotoso’s “Tell Me Sweet Something.” In the South African context, the latter perhaps serves as a trailblazer for films like “Happiness Is A Four Letter Word,” currently a box office success in the country.

“Happiness Is A Four Letter Word” revolves around three young women grappling with personal and professional lives in suburban Johannesburg.  Here’s the trailer:

Happiness Is A Four Letter Word (2016)

I saw the film with an audience of mostly young black women in a cinema at the Cavendish Mall, in Claremont, a mostly white middle class suburb of Cape Town. The screening was accompanied by murmuring, ululating, grins, grunts, giggles and exclamations from the audience. This conversation between the movie and the audience, something a lot of movies (local or Hollywood) only barely achieve, was interesting to witness. The film is an emphatic success in this regard, reflecting the audience on the screen, so much so that they can recognize the characters and their journeys.

The film has grossed more than R10 million (about US$700,000) to date, and is being hailed as turning point for South African cinema. Although the financial success is great news for the cast, crew and South African cinema in general, it could set the bar (an not a particularly high one) for South African films.

Nandi (played by Mamabatho Montsho), the main character, is trying to make partner at a law firm, taking the patriarchal structures at work head-on, while trying to organize a wedding and forget an ex-lover. Zaza (Khanyi Mbau) is a stay-at-home mom to two boys, and a wife to a husband who is neither a husband nor a father. The third character is Princess (Renate Stuurman), a young curator living a progressive lifestyle.

The three protagonists swap important scenes, turning points, points of no return and climax, with distinctly recognizable inner personal, interpersonal and extra-personal conflicts. The three women are flawless, giving solid performances, with Khanyi Mbau, previously a “celebrity” and reality television star, delivering a surprisingly good performance as the trophy wife with a strong sexual appetite. The filmmakers seem more concerned, however, with repeated camera pans of her lingerie.

Nandi navigates being a career-focused woman who is about to be married. The audience appeared to be responding to the kissing of an ex and a fight with her fiancé more than the patriarchy she is fighting at work. Her character is similar to Thelma in the 1991 classic film by Ridley Scott, Thelma and Louise. She embodies Thelma’s weakness for men, but without any of the naivety. Though she is promoted to partner in her firm through hard work, the general impression is that a woman needs to organize her life – professional and personal – around the needs of men. Nandi’s fiancé, played by Chris Attoh, is in control of his emotions whilst Nandi is falling apart, unable to control hers.

Princess’ storyline is a narrative that needs to be told more often. In the beginning, she appears sexually liberated, comfortable to have numerous casual partners rather than a long-term relationship. Then she meets Leo, played by Richard Lukunku. Princess falls pregnant and feels like she is being punished for her “promiscuity.” This is where this narrative reverts to an all too familiar pattern of thinking about women who have numerous sexual partners or liaisons – that, unlike men, they are guilty and should be “punished” accordingly – by getting pregnant or contracting HIV, for example.

The characters in “Happiness Is A Four Letter Word” are ordinary but it is in this ordinariness of the characters that the film succeeds and fails. They are not ordinary in the sense that they are plebeians, far from it. They are, in fact, the quintessence of the black upper middle class, far removed from the social realities of the black working class South African majority.  The characters make frequent visits to the spa, shop expensively, dine out and live in lavish homes. There is a sense of appearing unmindful of the realities around them.

The film is adapted from a novel of the same name by author Cynthia Jele. The relationship between films and books, a merging of two mediums is a precarious one. Each book adaptation comes with its own demons. In this movie, the adaptation to screen works because of the strength of the cast, an excellent script by Busisiwe Ntintili and equally stellar direction by Thabang Moleya and cinematography by Lance Gewer.

“Happiness Is A Four Letter Word” succeeds because it does not try to do anything unconventional, it remains simple, and delivers a stylish and convincing rom com, while grappling with topical issues of patriarchy, sexual freedom, marriage and drug abuse, among others.

Further Reading