By Dwight Hobbes
The TV miniseries Shaka Zulu is hard to find at the large department stores. Even the good small stores probably have to order it. Odds are, though, it’s floating around your local library system (where the price is perfect). At any rate, it is historic.
Shaka kaSenzangakhona lived from 1787 to 1828. He was known as Shaka Zulu, as well as deeming himself, according to Joshua Sinclair’s script, anyway, “The Great Elephant.” Indisputably, he was the most influential leader of the Zulu Kingdom who conquered tribe after tribe, uniting survivors in his army, until the nation was feared throughout Southern Africa.
He also had name for, in addition to winning battles with ingenious cunning, ruling his realm with a cruel, iron hand. Whether he would win a popularity contest is not the point. The man left a lasting legacy.
South African director William Faure, in the special features segment of the four-DVD set, states off the bat, “I desperately wanted to do Shaka Zulu. I just couldn’t get [South African Broadcasting Corporation] interested, right? Because it was a Black subject.” Then screenwriter Joshua Sinclair joined him. Together they came up with funding. Afterward, the embarrassed SABC had to buy their way on board.
Faure and Sinclair did the project with integrity. “We fought for Zulu acting. If anyone was going to play Shaka or, in fact, Nandi [Shaka Zulu’s mother], it should be Zulu people, themselves.”
Faure insisted as well on a Black presence, if not at the top, at least on the firing line. “The people whose history it was should have a slice of the action. Because it was going to give a lot of people a lot of work, opportunities. Black technicians, getting in on a fairly major production.”
That’s how it should be. Them was good White folk. What they accomplished made them a credit to their, shall we say, industry. The series remains one of television’s best depictions of Black history in the wake of Alex Haley’s Roots a decade earlier.
Sinclair’s script gets a bit silly toward the end, implausibly turning Shaka into an ignorant caricature, the incoherently outraged savage who but for want of reason self-destructed.
It’s documented that Shaka Zulu lost his mind when his mother died. But, here, the writer shows him as being inexplicably unhinged before that. This after, episode after episode, rendering him an intelligent military strategist and sensible individual. Sinclair should’ve remained consistently faithful to the character.
At length, Shaka Zulu was, in 1987, a hallmark television series film. Even with the story stumbling to a stilted finish, the power of one of the world’s great warriors is rendered galvanizing.
Now, the bad news. What should have proved a promising showcase for Henry Cele as Shaka amounted to a fluke. He worked sporadically until 2001, his last role being in a television sequel, Shaka Zulu: The Citadel. He quit at age 54, when many actors are still hitting their stride. Many White actors, anyway. Tragically, he died after falling ill with a chest infection in 2007 at age 58.
Cele was on caliber with, say, Yul Brynner, Woody Strode, Yaphet Kotto. Singularly mesmerizing. Charismatic with inarguable authority. What’s the saying? A man’s man.
Supporting lead Dudu Mkhize’s performance as Nandi is exquisite. Subtle. Nuanced. Heartbreaking. As women characteristically are called on to show soft strength, Mkhize marvelously portrays scorned lover, nurturing mother and, ultimately, proudly prevailing individual. Dudu Mkhize left the business in 1992 after Servants of Twilight. She had, in all that time, done a handful of roles.
Name a White woman in television who, in that year, played a role of comparable profile whose career doesn’t boast numerous well-paying jobs. For that matter, the movie spoof Amazon Women on the Moon showcased Rosanna Arquette, Kelly Preston and Michelle Pfeiffer. Arquette’s star, granted, never really took off. But, she’s consoled by more than a hundred roles and wrapped up something called Hardflip this year.
Preston did better before lapsing in obscurity. She worked with Eddie Murphy in Holy Man and opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire with Cuba Gooding, Jr. She is in production this year, doing Gotti: In the Shadow of My Father.
Pfeiffer, well, she became the Michelle Pfeiffer (Dark Shadows, Scarface, Batman Returns). Henry Cele and Dudu Mkhize are footnotes.
It is too bad there aren’t more Whites like Faure and Sinclair making movies. Imagine the difference it would have made in the dramatization of Black history.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.