Got a letter from the government the other day.
I opened and read it,
It said they were suckers.
— Public Enemy, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”
“The opening sequence you’re about to see is something that came to me the very first time I flew to South Africa.” Bronwen Hughes is describing a stunning view of Johannesburg and environs, the setting for Stander: the camera soars over surrounding beaches and trees (“typical Africa”) to busy urban center to swank swimming pools and on to depressed shantytowns. As Hughes suggests here, the introduction helpfully reveals the complexity of her film’s setting, the social and political conflicts that drove a cop named Andre Stander (played here by Thomas Jane, whom Hughes describes as “ballsy, but a good driver, that’s for sure”) to rob banks.
Here the scene cuts to Stander driving, fast. He’s late for his wedding. Dressed in his blue ruffled shirt and tux, he’s marrying for the second time, to the same woman, Bekkie (Deborah Kara Unger). The big-family celebration consists of the usual toasting and embellishing, as Andre embraces his renaissance, his chance to get it right. Lying on the beach with his lovely bride, again, he imagines they’re 18 in Fort Lauderdale, perfect and hopeful. When he confesses his dream, Bekkie laughs, “You’re crazy, all I need is you.” Okay, he agrees, then reveals his concern: “Tell me I won’t get sucked back into the muck.”
There’s lots of that around. Based on Stander’s real life story, Hughes’ absorbing film, now out on DVD from Columbia (which features two deleted scenes and an excellent “Anatomy of a Scene,” from the Sundance Channel, as well as her commentary) is set in 1976 Soweto. The South African Police Force’s youngest captain ever, Andre has made his peace with the day-to-day details, solving brutal murders and sifting through gruesome crime scenes, but he’s increasingly unable to reconcile himself to the violence he’s being ordered to commit. When he and the rest of the force are called on to pacify protestors at the Soweto uprising, he undergoes a kind of revelation. It’s the film’s most harrowing scene, a series of image fragments and camera swoops that seem to give some sense of the moment’s chaos, even the era’s ongoing horrors. As Hughes observes the violence, she notes, “In this footage, we had never a false move from the people on both sides of the line, the young soldier boys or the township people. They were fully committed to making this as realistic as possible and never let up.”
That this scene comes so closely on the heels of the wedding’s optimistic energy only makes clear the nation’s legendary divide between classes, locations, and races. Appearing anonymous and monolithic in military camouflage, the riot squad awaits the approaching crowd, singing freedom songs, hundreds of people moving as one body. “Fire at will,” comes the command. Imagining the assault from the perspective of one of the shooters, Stander takes risks: it’s difficult to understand, let alone empathize with, the policemen firing on an unarmed assembly. And yet the bedlam of the moment makes its own point, that Andre, at least, is horrified by what he does, even in the instant that he does it. The frame freezes the face of a young man he shoots, and the film changes course.
Stander is soon overcome by his distress. “Why do the wrong ones keep dying?” he asks his father, retired general Stander (Marius Weyers, “one of the greatest actors in South Africa,” says Hughes, “You’re compelled to watch him”). When his father insists that he did a right thing, better than being attacked himself (though as the son points out, the “weapons” the kids had were raised fists), Andre takes another sort of stand: he requests desk duty during the next township stand-off, even though, as he’s told, it will ruin his bright-seeming career. And his choice certainly disappoints his father, For Stander, the stakes have changed. He researches the backgrounds of the young men murdered by the police, including his own victim (and here the film takes license to focus his own emotional trajectory, as Stander was responsible for more than one death). As he tries to explain to Bekkie, “I wasn’t defending myself, I wasn’t defending my family. The only thing I was defending was my reputation, and that’s a bullshit excuse for shooting people.”
In an effort to rearrange the political and cultural terms he’s facing, Andre robs a bank. Reasoning that “a white man can get away with anything today,” he sets out to distract the police as well as show up their prejudice. And so their energies, give them something else to do besides oppress and kill black activists. The first robbery is impulsive, and then he develops a rhythm, wearing wigs and mustaches, limiting his time in the bank, planning escape routes, but he’s hardly discreet (following one robbery, he runs through a black section, so obviously not belonging, and yet, accepted, as the security guards stumble about, afraid to pursue him deeper into this area).
In fact, Andre’s crime spree is so blatant that he develops another sort of “reputation,” as a gentleman bank robber who titillates the ladies and impresses the men. (The film includes a scene to suggest that his own sense of empowerment has to do with pleasing Bekkie, as he indulges her with expensive gifts and passionate, artfully shadowed sex.) Most absurdly, he’s called in, as police captain, to solve the crime, whereupon he must inform the teller that she’s mistaken, he couldn’t possibly be the mastermind. Eventually, of course, he is arrested and convicted (an event that appears to surprise his apparently self-deluding wife).
Though Stander protests that he’s committed far worse crimes in the name of the law, the court can’t comprehend his point, and sends him off to prison (a sentence of 32 years) for robbery; inside, the former cop gets a righteously hard time, mocked as “Dirty Fuckin’ Harry.” While most of Johannesburg sees Andre as a common, arrogant delinquent, he pictures himself as a revolutionary, or at least a rebel with a cause he’s considered well.
But Stander doesn’t quite share his view, and it never becomes a typical “bank robbers” movie. This even as it does include some fun, rowdy “criminal activity” images, especially after Stander breaks out of prison with the two men who will become his partners in “the Stander gang,” the anti-apartheid minded Allan Heyl (David Patrick O’Hara) and the more erratic Lee McCall (Dexter Fletcher). Yet it never quite assumes Andre’s point of view; he’s no “freedom fighter,” or even much of an anarchist, despite his desire to upset the status quo. “We fuck with the system,” he asserts, “and capitalize on its disorder.”
Instead, the script by Hughes and Bima Stagg, and Jane’s extraordinary performance, come together to produce a healthy skepticism about Stander’s choices and careers. Suggesting his seduction by his own notoriety and hinting at his troubled relationship to his race, the movie doesn’t celebrate Stander as much as it argues for his representative culpability. “Either become them,” he declares, as if willing it to be true, “or live at odds with everything around you.” But while Andre is enthusiastic about his evolving social conscience, he’s also a troubled figure, never quite comprehending the pain he brings to others. “Stander wasn’t big on details,” says Hughes in her commentary. Heyl was the detail man. So, Stander casually says, ‘Hop the counter,’ but the counter is made of glass, and when Allen Heyl gets in there, it’s not easy to do, especially silently.” The scene dissolves into chaos, as they are trying to rob a gun shop, and the woman behind that glass counter pulls a gun on them, so they must shoot her. “It was a big mistake,” says Hughes. From here on, the “public” turn against the gentlemen robbers.
Stander expects his father’s disapproval, and the film handles this most obvious subplot, the psychology of this relationship, with refreshing subtlety. But he badly misreads Bekkie, projecting his politics and desires onto her, unable to grant her a life of her own. Stander‘s keenest challenges, however, are directed at action movie conventions, and more generally, the construction of pop cultural heroes. This guy is just too complicated to grant viewers the usual pay-offs: he doesn’t learn a positive lesson, he doesn’t beat the system, and he doesn’t come to resolution with his family. Andre’s self-conception is so conflicted that it’s difficult to read him as triumphant, even when he does elude authorities who are repeatedly stupid and cocky, seeming to deserve their comeuppance, as in, “He’s one man, we’re the damn government!”
At the same time, his relationships with his partners never come quite clear (the real life Heyl remains in prison to this day; Stander and McCall are both dead). Alienated and outraged from the “community” that would appear to be his, Stander has nowhere else to turn (when he approaches the father of the boy he killed at Soweto to ask for punishment, the scene verges on melodrama, relegating the black characters to extensions of his tortured psyche). “Some things are done that can’t be undone,” sighs Bekkie. Surely Andre has learned this lesson, but he can’t stop himself from wishing otherwise. And this, more than anything, is his white man’s legacy, a belief in his own power.