The Gods Must be Crazy I & II (1980/1988)

David Leonard

The documentary Journey to Nyae Nyae considers the films' consumption in the West, as they made N!xau a star and raised anthropological interest in the Bushmen.

The Gods Must Be Crazy I & II

Director: James UYS
Cast: Marius Weyers, Sandra Prinsloo, N!xau, Lena Faruga, Hans Strydom
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Sony Pictures
First date: 1980 and 1988
US DVD Release Date: 2004-03-01

At the age of 13, I "experienced Africa" for the first time through The Gods Must be Crazy. After my parents took us to this "educational" film, I read everything available on the Bushmen. I had no concept of fetishizing the exotic, white constructions of an uncivilized Africa, or colonial discourse. I was only curious to learn about this unknown other.

When I was 16, I returned to the theaters for a second "lesson," with the release of The Gods Must be Crazy II. I joined thousands of other Americans laughing at our savage brethren. I still loved Xi (N!xau), the only returning character, his clicking language, and the comedy provided by his bumbling.

At 21, I began reading film critically. I read articles by Ella Shohat, Vincent Rocchio, and bell hooks that deconstructed Gods' racism and ideological, historical, cultural and aesthetic connections to Birth of a Nation and other projects of U.S. (white) global hegemony. Now 30, I'm again troubled by The Gods Must be Crazy, now available on DVD.

The Gods Must be Crazy I & II follow a long Hollywood tradition, imagining Africa as a far away fantasy. Set in the Kalahari Desert, home of the Bushmen, the first film presents a confrontation between primitive culture and modern exploitation. A Coke bottle drops from the sky, sending the Bushmen community into a state of uncertainty. Xi, determined to thwart the encroaching development the bottle betokens, embarks on a journey to take the gift "back to God." This leads to a series of "comedic episodes" demonstrating the noble savagery of the Bushman and the threat Western civilization poses to their tribal society. Gods chronicles the difficulty of modernization for the Bushmen, naturalizing white dominance and colonial relationships.

The Gods Must be Crazy II, while never earning the same praise, excoriation, or box office success as the original, replicates its plot, again following Xi, who once again battles invasion by the other. This time, Xi is forced to search for his two children, kidnapped by two ivory poachers. As he searches, the plot goes in multiple directions, usually comic.

Both The Gods Must be Crazy I & II employ a series of rhetorical strategies to convince viewers of their "truthfulness." The narrator sounds as if he's lifted from a 1920s Anthropology film. As he intones over repetitive images of native buffoonery, he suggests to young viewers, anyway, that the films are "authentic" glimpses into the culture and experience of the Bushmen.

As The Gods Must be Crazy I & II reinscribe colonial fantasies, the extras on the DVD explore some of these problems. While not entirely self-critical, the documentary Journey to Nyae Nyae considers the films' consumption in the West, as they made N!xau a star and raised anthropological interest in the Bushmen.

The documentary critiques the eco-tourists who flocked to Africa following the first film's release in hopes of meeting N!xau or otherwise sampling his alien life. Once the most famous African actor in the world, N!xau signifies the tragic colonial circumstances surrounding the production of the films, having profited very little from his "acting career." The documentary shows him in a tattered shirt, thin from a long battle with tuberculosis. Rather than probe this particular history, the documentary focuses on Western generosity. Like the Gods movies, it shows how Westerners have constructed school houses, introduced new technology (solar panels), and taught English to numerous school children.

The DVD makes several arguments to help viewers understand the Gods Must be Crazy project: (1) The films brought attention to dire conditions of the Kalahari, inspiring help from outside. (2) The aversion to technology that led the Bushmen to fear a Coke bottle is past; now, they yearn for technology. But in these arguments, the documentary represents the third installment of the Gods trilogy. Following the first two films' emphasis on the Bushmen's incompetence and lovable savagery, the DVD extras only expand the portrayal, while making the Westerners look good.

But while watching The Gods Must be Crazy I & II took me back to my childhood, the ability to reconnect with a film with an alternative gaze is a productive experience. As the DVD set includes both films, the documentary, and a host of other extras (web-links to Kalahari information sites; photo galleries, and a second featurette), it provides an opportunity to examine 1980s cinematic colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, from another angle.





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.