So, meet Anita: blonde, 35ish, hair and nails just so, dressed to kill in a low-cut babydoll, working the floor at the opening cocktail party of the first annual Cape Town Film and TV market, a Cannes-style conclave of financiers and film-makers. A cabinet minister had just made a speech, and now a jazz band was playing while Anita and her competitors formed predatory circles around foreign studio execs who might be persuaded to bankroll this project or that and thus fulfil someone's dream of Hollywood destiny.

In Anita's case, the cinematic property to be pitched was a biopic about Helen Joseph, a white housewife who got involved in the liberation struggle only to find herself banned for decades and forbidden to host dinner parties for more than two or was it three people. Mrs Joseph was a scrappy old lady by most accounts, and a thorn in the side of five successive Boer premiers, but really, Anita, as said I, this is a recipe for box-office oblivion. I mean, the verdict is in - the masses don't like apartheid movies. Hardly anyone goes to see them, even in South Africa.

Why not? In the bad old days, when such movies were forbidden, we were all presumed to be thirsting for apartheid epics in which black Americans starred as noble freedom fighters. First inklings otherwise came just after the Great Leap Forward of 1990, when a Jo'burg impresario staged a festival of hitherto-banned films in a firestorm of hype about forbidden truths that could finally be told. Unfortunately, whites didn't want to know, and blacks didn't want to be reminded, or maybe none of us really recognised what we saw on screen, which was so sanitised and sentimentalised for foreign consumption that it seemed banal alongside the staggering reality of our quotidian 9-to-5.

In any event, the upshot was audiences in single figures, a trend that has since held steady. Shawn Slovo's World Apart did good business, to be sure, but most others were flops, even unto Darrel Roodt's Cry the Beloved Country and Angus Gibson's Mandela, a masterful feature-length documentary about you-know-who that vanished from Jo'burg's screens after barely a week, crushed at the box office by Yankee fluff about invading aliens. Under the circumstances, why make a picture about Helen Joseph?

Indeed, I continued, warming to the subject, why bother to shloop up to the guys from Fox and Columbia at all? Their job is to reinforce American cultural hegemony by floating the planet with Stallone and Schwarzenegger vehicles. Our job is surely to sabotage them by making local movies so powerful and gripping that Hollywood product is relegated to obscure art houses.

"And what manner of movies might these be?," Anita inquired dryly. I wouldn't want to presume, but there's a case to be made for pictures that the punters can relate to. The old South Africa was obsessed with apartheid. The New South Africa is obsessed with crime, its citizens beset by a despairing sense that the state is losing its war against the bad guys, becoming powerless to protect ordinary people. Why make films about the past while the roof falls in on our present? What we need, I concluded, is some black John Waynes: rough-hewn heroes transposed from the mythic plains of the American western into the trash-strewn streets of our townships, riding high, walking tall, protecting the weak and routing the villains, and, yes, giving schoolboys someone to look up to.

So why not a movie about Pagad (People Against Drugs and Gangsterism), the vigilante movement presently raising hell in Cape Town's coloured ghettoes? Anita gaped, but then she would, being a creature of the relatively safe white suburbs. Pagad is a movement of the underclass, rooted in slums where poverty is rife, addictions legion, the police corrupt and government a remote cabal of left-wing progressives who indulge black criminality on the grounds that it's the fruit of past injustice, which is all very well, and to some extent true, but cold comfort to black people who live under its tyranny.

And so there came a night when the members of Pagad decided they'd had it with rape, murder and crack cocaine. Armed to the teeth, they piled into their cars, drove through the slums in a mile-long convoy, laid siege to the lair of some notorious gangsters and eventually shot and burned one to death in front of a TV news camera, thus catapulting Pagad into instant, world-wide notoriety.

It was a grisly scene, I grant you, but is this not what action movies are all about: the violent triumph of good over evil? And is there not a subtext of black empowerment, a cathartic shucking off of the slave mentality as the oppressed seize control of their own destiny? This is rich material, Anita, I said, but she was on her way.

Ah, well. I was wasting her time, I suppose, and must have seemed ignorant of the rules governing portrayal of black people in movies. They can be victims (as in The Color Purple), or revolutionaries (as in Malcolm X), or glib hustlers (as in Superfly), or gangsta-rapping crack addicts with Uzis (as in New Jack City and its progeny), but staunch conservatives who believe in family values, Godliness and law and order? You need your head read.

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