Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema owes a large debt to the crime movies that came before it. The most obvious ancestors are Scarface, Goodfellas, and City of God, in that it traces the life of a young, hungry hoodlum as he rises through the ranks of the criminal underworld. Perhaps more than any of those films, it’s more closely related to 2009’s A Prophet in that the main character begins his journey as a reluctant participant, compelled to act as he does by force of circumstance rather than greed or a lust for power.
Despite the obvious similarities to other movies about organized crime, Gangster’s Paradise manages to be it’s own electrifying story. It may be a gangster film, but it’s an original take on a traditional tale.
The year 1994 signified a new beginning for South Africa. Nelson Mandela had been freed from prison, apartheid was on the way out, and there was a pervasive sense of hope. In some regards, that is. In the crime-ridden ghettos of Soweto, things were still rough. Poverty ran rampant, and the threat of violence loomed large.
Even in a tough place like Soweto, Lucky Kunene (Jafta Mamabolo) is a good kid who dreams of success. He hustles with his best friend Zakes (Motlatsi Mahloko), but their hustles are limited to hawking candy on the train, and he is ultimately accepted into the university. That’s where problems arise, he gets in, but without a scholarship there is no way a poor kid from the slums can afford the tuition. In order to raise money for school they start jacking cars. There’s a great moment where the two teens wait for their target, standing beneath a sign that reads “Hi-Jacking Hot Spot”.
Before long they graduate to more serious crimes, like bank robbery. When the crew they run with becomes increasingly violent, Lucky decides it is time to step away, and gets a job at a gas station. He’s tempted back by “one last big score”, which has never once in the history of movies worked out. When things go bad, Lucky and Zakes flee to the “jungle of Johannesburg”, where they can disappear.
Ten years later Lucky and Zakes (now played by Rapulana Seiphemo and Ronnie Nyakale) drive a taxi, which in Johannesburg is run like a criminal racket. They live in a tenement in a neighborhood that is waist deep in trash, drugs, and crime. Sick of struggling just to scrape by Lucky, who still dreams big, embarks on a new venture. Through a strange mixture of thuggish intimidation and community organizing, they take over the decimated buildings from the white, absentee landlords.
The violent nature of their overthrows attracts the attention of the police, while his evictions of drug dealers and prostitutes increases tensions from that side. At the same time Lucky flaunts the law, he provides safe, livable housing for the people, something the government promised, but failed to deliver. So while he is decried as a criminal by authorities, and despised by other criminal elements, he is beloved by the people around him. He is essentially a strong-armed Robin Hood.
The salad days can’t last forever, of course, and eventually tensions from without and within build into a gathering storm, and everything begins to unravel.
Gangster’s Paradise can be brutal and coarse, but beyond that, it’s also a beautiful film. Writer/director Ralph Ziman captures a specific place in history. He sets his story at a time of great change on a small, personal level, as well as on a larger, national stage. The story of Lucky Kunene parallels that of South Africa, it’s violent and gritty, but Ziman never allows it to be completely devoid of hope. In the midst of extreme destitution and hostility, there is still potential and opportunity.
From the excellent acting and writing, to the music and cinematography, all of the elements really come together to create something special. Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema transcends obvious genre constraints, and is a compelling film that you should absolutely watch.
The DVD comes with a collection of deleted and extended scenes. Most of them were simply trimmed down for time. However, there is one scene between Zakes and his brother Nazareth (Jeffrey Zekele) that, while not necessary to the story at large, provides some nice insight into the friendship between Zakes and Lucky.
By far the best bonus feature on the disc is the commentary track with Ziman, Mamabolo, and composer Alan Lazar. It gives you the usual behind the scenes anecdotes about making the movie, but also provides glimpses into the cultural and historical context of the story. In one instance, they talk about the history of a specific police station where they filmed, about the role it played in the suppression of political opposition. Ziman talks about the man who was the inspiration for the story, the source of the much-touted “inspired by true events” tag.
Further, he discusses issues he encountered while writing the script. South Africa has 11 official languages, and as a result the dialogue is a pidgin hybrid of English, Afrikaans, and others, and bounces back and forth between a number of different dialects. When you look at it like that, the achievement is even more impressive.