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78 minutes, 1998, South Africa
Director: Mickey Madoda Dube
in English and Afrikaans with English subtitles
An online FACILITATOR GUIDE is available for this title.

A Walk in the Night is one of the first films from a new generation of talented young black South African filmmakers who have become active since the overthrow of apartheid in 1994. Mickey Madoda Dube's debut feature adapts Alex La Guma's celebrated 1962 novella of the same name into a fast-paced crime thriller set in present day Johannesburg. The fact that this story could be so convincingly updated to the present indicates how little racial power dynamics in South Africa have changed. The fact that this program was produced and broadcast by the government owned South African Broadcasting Corporation shows how much they have.

Alex La Guma (1925-1986), the son of a leading early anti-apartheid activist, was himself imprisoned twice for his political activities - in 1956 as part of the Treason Trials and in 1962 for progressive journalism. He wrote A Walk in the Night while banned (under house arrest) and it was originally published outside the country in Nigeria. In 1967 he fled South Africa for Britain, dying in exile in 1986 while the ANC's representative in Cuba. The filmmaker, Mickey Madoda Dube, was born in Soweto in 1960 and studied drama at the University of Witswatersrand and film on a Fulbright at the University of Southern California. Since returning to South Africa, he has collaborated in a series of short story adaptations as well as produced eight dramas and a five part series on the Truth and Justice Commission for the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Dube's film adaptation shifts the emphasis of La Guma's story in several significant ways. For example, by moving the location from Capetown's vibrant District 6 in the 1950s to a drab, working class Johannesburg neighborhood today, the original story's Coloured flavor has become more generic, non-white South Africans. In fact, the milieu of police brutality, frustrated young men and omnipresent crime which Dube so powerfully evokes, will be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with our own inner cities. Dube's script also tightens the personal ties between the major characters, condensing the drama and heightening the ultimate sense of tragedy. In so doing, he is perhaps suggesting that the fate of all South Africans has become more closely intertwined than ever before.

Dube frames his film with references to the ghost-walking scene in Act 1 of Shakespeare's Hamlet. In La Guma's original, the bard is quoted only once, although, significantly, the novella takes its title from this passage: "I am thy father's spirit doomed for a certain term to walk the night." The central character, Mikey, is clearly intended to have parallels with Hamlet. His patrimony has also been unjustly usurped, in this case, by South Africa's white supremacist regime. Mikey's "Uncle" Doughty, like Hamlet's uncle Claudius, has had an affair with his mother and Mikey ends up killing him, though this brings not resolution but further tragedy. The sordid nightscape of Johannesburg and the flashing sparks of the steel mill where Mikey worked evoke the Hell from which the ghost seeks release through his son's revenge.

A Walk in the Night recounts a single terrible night when the fragile world of Mikey Adonis, a young Coloured steel worker, disintegrates. As the pressures on Mikey build, we see a decent man driven to an act of brutality by a racist society which humiliates him at every turn. The parallels with Richard Wright's seminal portrait of black rage in Native Son are unavoidable. Mikey has just been fired from his job because he objected when his foreman called him "kaffir," a racial epithet. Coming out of the factory, he runs into his girlfriend's brother Joey, an "at risk" youth dabbling in male prostitution and drug running in response to South Africa's 40% black unemployment rate. Mikey, a respected father figure for the boy, tries to save him from the gangster life-style but realizes that his own recent work experience doesn't offer a very promising alternative. Next his girlfriend, Zelda, tells him she is pregnant, the day he has lost the job he would need to support a family. Finally, on his way home, a racist cop harasses him for no other reason than to force Mikey to call him "baas," stripping away whatever dignity Mikey might have left.

Mikey begins a drinking binge with his Uncle Doughty, a harmless neighborhood drunk and broken down Irish actor who was close to his mother and him as a child. As the evening wears on, Mikey becomes more offended by Uncle Doughty's presumptions of intimacy, telling him he doesn't have a white uncle. Like many well-meaning white people Uncle Doughty fails to recognize the radical gap between what they experience and the disrespect a black man encounters every day. When Uncle Doughty persists in calling him, "Mikey, my boy," saying that, "It's just a manner of speech," Mikey explodes and in a rage kills him. The film has shown how words can build up incrementally with an almost physical force until the most casual social encounter can seem to encapsulate an entire oppressive social system with devastating consequences.

Joey visits Mikey soon after Uncle Doughty's murder and is mistakenly accused of the crime; he flees into the night pursued by the police. Mikey chases after him, appalled at what he has done to Uncle Doughty and Joey. But he is too late to prevent the same rogue cop who harassed him earlier from shooting Joey at point blank range. The policeman then turns his gun on Mikey but, in a radical departure from the original novella, he is shot by his white partner before he can shoot Mikey. However improbable this may seem, it suggests that, although racism is still rampant in post-apartheid South Africa, it is now possible for some to see things in terms of basic human rights instead of ethnic loyalty. An angry crowd has gathered around Joey's shooting and, in the film's last scene, they march into the dawn out of the long night of apartheid with somber determination.

Mikey is no Hamlet; rather than a dead tragic hero, he is a man living with his deeply flawed actions. In the last scenes, there is little sense of vindication yet a catharsis of sorts has occurred, at least for the viewer, a resolution to stop this tragedy from repeating itself. By updating an apartheid era story into the post-apartheid period, Mickey Dube has squarely confronted the central issue facing South Africa and its cinema: how both to reveal the pentimento of the past persistent in the present and at the same time show that new, non-racialist scenarios are available for the future.
An online facilitator guide is available for this title.
"Successfully conveys the inescapable atmosphere inherent in the stratified South African society which makes the climax almost inevitable. A must see film."
Aboubakar Sanogo, National Museum of African Art
"Mickey Dube’s film freely adapts the sprit of Alex La Guma’s classic text and makes it refreshingly relevant to a post-apartheid South Africa. A remarkable achievement from a young filmmakers with great potential."
Mbye Cham, Howard University
"Faithfully conveys the poetics, historical vision, critical realism and politics of resistance so central to Alex La Cuma’s literary undertakings. La Guma was deeply influenced by Native Son and the film makes a wonderful allusion to the complex influence of black modernities across the Black Atlantic."
Ntongela Masilela, Pitzer College


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