Charles Burnett’s Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation, about the country’s decades-long fight for independence from apartheid-ruled South Africa, would make for a great PBS or HBO miniseries. Burnett, an efficient filmmaker with any budget, does his best to thoroughly tell the story of Samuel Nujoma (Carl Lumbly, in an impressively moderated performance), Namibia’s first president and the founder of the SWAPO political movement, along with the many others instrumental to the cause, but simply can’t fit the density of material into a 161-minute film. Unlike a lot of directors (not to mention politicians) Burnett nobly refuses to stick with a “good guys fight—beat bad guys—mission accomplished” scenario. He’s not afraid to get inside the messiness of international and national political games, the covert collaborators who can make the road to independence a journey of two-steps forward, one-step back. Even as Burnett moves swiftly from scene to scene, the mind wanders to what was left on the cutting room floor. Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation is a novel unfairly forced to fit the template of a poem.
For the struggle was not simply a black-and-white case of oppressed Africans versus their British and German occupiers. Indeed, Burnett is equally as interested in Namibia’s fight within its own heart. One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is Nujoma’s frustrating task of convincing not only the willfully blind diplomats at the U.N. that independence is crucial, but his own people as well, many of whom firmly believed—and rightly so in the short term—that causing trouble for the whites could only bring trouble upon themselves. After all, it was the blacks who were coerced into doing the dirty work for the whites—from carrying out public beatings to informing on political organizers. Namibia’s colonization could not have lasted without this collusion. Nujoma had the twin Herculean jobs of not only asking people to risk their lives and families for a dream with no guarantee, but also crushing those brothers blocking the way with no remorse. One tribal chief asks the local parish priest, played by an always-nuanced Danny Glover, who’s finally physically matured into his gravitas, if he’s willing to die for the cause. He answers yes unequivocally. Is he willing to kill for it? This he’s not willing to do—rendering him unqualified for the struggle. (“It takes a heavy hand to bring about peace and harmony,” one British officer declares.)
There’s something very American about the belief that freedom can only be achieved through blood and Burnett does not shy away from this (Nujoma is more interested in Marcus Garvey than in Gandhi). From a grocery sign reading “White Bread for Whites Only” to the shell of a torched vehicle baking in the desert sun, the “Mississippi Burning” era of the American south looms like an insidious shadow. (It would have been fascinating to see what an African director would have done with this story—I’m sure it would resemble nothing of Burnett’s film.) From the use of “western” orchestral music during the colonization, which is gradually replaced by African drumbeats as independence nears, to references to Vietnam and the Iraq war—British soldiers second-guessing their mission (Burnett’s camera capturing a gun pointed at a toe), women and children being senselessly killed, rockets launched by men on bicycles who ride away stealthily—the universality of the anti-imperialist impulse is never far off.
Which leads to another thing Burnett can get away with that lesser filmmakers cannot—predictability. Oftentimes the script for Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation is heavy-handed, weighed down by exposition in the director’s effort to cram in as much information as possible. The secondary cast members are one-note caricatures, especially the white Brits and Germans, their inadequacies only highlighted by the great performances from the leads. The first half of the film, which slowly follows the hero’s rise from poor boyhood to a man of importance, and the second half of fast-paced explosive war scenes as spectacular as anything Oliver Stone has ever staged, are classic Hollywood tropes. (And the action scenes play especially well to Burnett’s strength—his roaming, probing eye. If this man helmed blockbusters he’d single-handedly raise Hollywood’s I.Q. by a hundred points!)
Fortunately, Burnett is allergic to easy filmmaking, forever searching for a new angle. Even the most predictable scenes are shot unpredictably. Children throw rocks at a patrol car, are rounded up by black policemen and tossed onto their backs like sacks. Yet the kids still wriggle and fight with all their might, arms grasping towards Burnett’s lens as if for salvation. The director chooses a close up on bound hands twitching rather than the victim’s body being whipped, more disturbing than the sight of the lacerations themselves. The camera traces the flow of blood as it trickles down a leg into the sand following a public beating. From the smallest detail to the biggest revelation, Burnett is always hyperaware—of foggy windowpanes and the bright desert light, of the enormity of mass exodus that results from a forced relocation, of the sand and smoke blowing over dead bodies like a shroud, of the difference between being inside a foxhole or looking down on a mass grave, of the colors and sounds and heat of an environment that seems to court oppression of every stripe. Burnett is not content to show but uses images to force us to feel.
And just when the action seems to fall into a sure-fire rhythm, Burnett uses sound to keep the audience off balance. A fog-laden train is seen in the quiet, bluish nighttime light before it explodes, burning to a bright orange. (Cut to Glover’s priest praying at a red altar as the violence escalates, straight out of a mob flick.) One of my favorite scenes occurs near the end when African drums are employed to heighten the suspense of an inevitable shootout in the desert—then an excruciatingly long silence before gunfire erupts. “Why do the wicked die in peace?” one character asks when a corrupt drunken chief passes away in his sleep. “In wars villains become heroes,” another later pronounces. In a country occupied by Germans and British, aided by Fidel Castro’s weapons, fighting the plodding chess tournament of United Nations politics as real people die, struggling to unite black with black while whites methodically conquer and divide, there are no easy moral answers. Only this image: of Namibia’s future president, once a stubborn youth, now a white-bearded old man, standing in camouflage against the dense foliage, surveying the now barren battleground where those seeds of hope were first planted so many generations ago.