Testimony to being black and loving in the world

Film director Lebogang Rasethaba’s new programme in ‘The People Versus’ series shows that a little love goes a long way.

Love is a difficult, complex, and hard thing to come by. You grow up and your perfect parent is no longer your hero. Your white best friend from grade eight has told you to “relax, apartheid is over”. The black vice-chancellor at your university appears less concerned with black students than anyone before him. Your country is bursting at the seams, and since Madiba, you’ve never seen a president in his seat long enough to believe that love can overcome greed and power.

But then you read Maya Angelou. You hear Bill Withers sing Grandma’s Hands for the first time. You watch Thandiswa Mazwai in concert. A man who looks like you and sounds like you is more wonderful than disappointing. You see Regina King win an Oscar, and The Little Mermaid gets a melanin makeover. And you realise that you are kept alive and thriving by the prayers of the generations before. In a bloody, brutal fight against hundreds of years of hate, you discover a little black love goes a long way.

Love letter to black people from black people

With the third installment of his critically acclaimed The People Versus series, film director Lebogang Rasethaba is waging a war for tenderness. The People vs the People, which follows The People vs the Rainbow Nation and The People vs the Patriarchy, is a love letter to black people from black people. Historically conscious, intelligent and visually astute, the documentary explores the concept of black love – how it emerges, how it communicates, how it operates, and sometimes, how it excludes. The film is a tapestry of black experiences, told by black people in their own words.

Rasethaba describes the film as “the most challenging” in the series. “As far as trying to talk about black love. I think with Rainbow Nation – when you’re talking about things like structural power, I think it’s easier to organise, particularly if you’ve got something like #FeesMustFall which becomes a case study. Similarly with [The People vs the] Patriarchy, with #MenAreTrash, there was a moment to frame it around. But I think with People vs People … it’s so hard to pin down, and start, of all the films this is the one that’s got the least footprint,” he explains.

The faint footprint is the film’s greatest accomplishment, and perhaps its greatest hurdle. Coming out of a period of binge viewing of Netflix documentaries, it’s hard to watch something with so much air and so little visual instruction. Besides the five chapters the film uses to structure the conversations, and the occasional use of illustrative images and footage, it’s freefall from start to finish. There is no voiceover, no historical timeline and no clear boundaries for where, discursively, the chapter should naturally start or end. In every conversation between the participants, Rasethaba gifts the viewer with a seat of their own – an opportunity to experience the intimacy of each conversation, and a chance to think for themselves. For a documentary that runs at 1 hour and 16 minutes, it’s sheer torture and sheer bliss.

No way to be absent in this film

If you’re a black woman viewer, in this film there is no conversation you’re exempt from, no moment that allows you to switch off and say “Nope, I don’t resonate with that”, and allows you to stare vacantly until the arrival of the next scene. Once the discomfort of self-reflexive viewership subsides, the film is an elastic springboard for the viewer to ask “What is black love to me?”; to say “Hallelujah! Yes, I felt that!” and to bemoan the close relationships black love has with black struggle. 

This was Rasethaba’s ambition: “When young people watch this film, one of the things we want to do is acknowledge that there’s a journey. And that people are at different parts of the journey. So primarily we’re trying to equip people with the [language] to join that journey. You want to give people the opportunity to learn and converse and heal. And to show that black love is real and it’s close and it’s not just, like Zara [Julius] says in the film, ‘black women with afros in Harlem’. Black love happens in so many different ways. And there are so many ways that we can respond to it and practice it,” he says.

Black love and healing

If black love isn’t the Nola-Darling-nubian-queen-Erykah-Badu-no-chemicals character we see in the mediated representations of ourselves, then what is it? It’s the cast. It’s Khanya, a young black transgender man, trying to make enough money to further his career, to diminish his anxieties and find enough time to embrace his evolving gender and social reality.

It’s Zodwa Wabantu, whose “come as you are” blackness is an affront to our “accepted” standards of beauty, respectability and success. It’s Palesa Buyeye allowing herself to suffer and heal from depression, without also suffering the taboos around mental health issues in the black community. It’s Vuyisa Xekatwane embracing the ancestral mantle of her calling to be a sangoma. 

For the filmmaker himself, “It’s definitely a self-soothing film, and in it I’m exploring gentleness,” he says. “It’s not often you get an opportunity to do that. Exercising small forms of healing. When we think about healing, we think about this massive stuff, and it’s actually just the small, deliberate things you do.”

Rasethaba worked with a close-knit content team, who used a WhatsApp group to share inspiration, and regularly came together to vet, encourage, stimulate and probe every aspect of their quest for black love. In a diversion from what was, to use his words, quite a “lonely process” on the previous two films, Rasethaba drew on the incremental, deliberate offerings of his team, and it shows in the film. From the drawing together of different locations, perspectives and united sentiments, the content is as diverse as the content team itself. 

“I never once felt alone in making this film … if you imagine the scope of influence of six or seven different people, all on their own journeys of black love, and it all connecting and coming together. There really were so many different influences and inspirations. And I think that’s one of the great successes of the film, being able to bring together that big influence that came from the team.”

Everything about The People vs The People spins on the idea of love in community. From Rasethaba’s own journey into fatherhood – with its own very special kind of black love – to the moments where the participants come to new ideas and perspectives on screen, it is less a “piece of work” and more a work of testimony. Testimony to the struggle of being black in a world where that means many things at once; and to the promise of love that holds those many things together.

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