On Wednesday, I spent the day in back to back interviews with movie stars who have movies coming out soon. And more than once, when I mentioned where I was from, I got asked about Oscar Pistorius and the judgement that left not just South Africans with their hands up in the air and mouths agape.
In the past four years that I’ve been based in the US, I’ve noticed how my country, South Africa, has been represented, almost entirely, by a single thing each year.
When I first got here, it was Die Antwoord. Ninja and Yo-landi, who now hang out with Marilyn Manson and Johnny Depp, made their US breakthrough via Enter the Ninja on the website BoingBoing, and will soon be seen in the movie Chappie. I would be asked by practically everyone I met about the duo (having to correct the pronouncement of their name and explain some of the make-your-mother-blush lyrics). From Danny DeVito to Jake Gyllenhaal – Hollywood’s finest would tell me how much they liked the duo. During an interview for the movie, The Lorax, DeVito made me late to speak to Zac Efron because he wanted to know more details about their David Letterman appearance.
Yet, I can’t speak about Die Antwoord with the same kind of pride I would about, say, Foreign Language Oscar-winner Tsotsi. I would, and still do, answer questions with a sense of ambivalence – yes, I admire their daring-do, but I can’t seem to get behind their too-nasty words and cultural appropriation.
The following year it was Searching for Sugar Man. The story about two South Africans on a quest to find down-and-out Detroit musician Rodriguez, who unknowingly had become a folk hero in far-off South Africa during Apartheid won over hearts all over the US. Everywhere I would go, people would ask me about Rodriguez. Did he really have such an impact? How was it possible Americans didn’t know about him until now? From director Judd Apatow, who wanted to talk more about the documentary than his movie during an interview for This is 40, to Martin Gore from Depeche Mode at that year’s SXSW.
Although it wasn’t a South African who told the story, there were two at the heart of it, and I felt an immense pride when I watched the film make its US debut at the Sundance Film Festival and then go on to win the Best Documentary Oscar. The suicide of director Malik Bendjeloull this year has been a heartbreaking end to the story.
As the Sugar Man film was on its way to Oscar glory in February last year, another Oscar story had dropped, which soon changed the focus on South Africa. News of Oscar Pistorius dominated TV headlines and magazine tabloids here. Months before, at the Django Unchained junket, Samuel L Jackson had talked to me about his admiration for the athlete at being able to compete with able-bodied athletes during the London games. His image made the front of the New York Times, and he became a true international symbol of hope and heroism in South Africa.
With the sentencing Pistorius received in October this year for shooting dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, we all know how far that fall from grace has been. Since the news broke on Valentine’s Day last year, and all the way through now, I get asked about the case, which put Pistorius back on the front of the New York Times. This week, at interviews for the movies Unbroken and Annie, Jack O’Connell and Jamie Foxx respectively, asked me how he could get off for killing his girlfriend. And I was left, like in so many conversations with friends, unsure how to even begin to answer.
I’m hoping as we go into the new year that a new South African story takes centre focus. Of course a country is never just one thing, but when it’s only major stories – or remarkable ones – that stand out, some things tend to stick.
Tonight Trevor Noah makes his debut as a contributor on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He’s been steadily making a name for himself with stand-up comedy shows here, his African American special on Netflix, and appearances on Jay Leno and David Letterman. His ability to tell jokes that are rooted in his unique South African upbringing that still appeal to an American audience make him poised to become a well-known name here. And I think it’s about time South Africa becomes known for its comedy. Just last month, Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola was honoured with a second International Emmy for Best Comedy series, and there’s a crop of names I would love to see gain more US exposure. Just please let it not be comedy of the kind that was on display in a recent parliamentary sitting.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart airs daily on Comedy Central in the US, and in Africa on DSTV Ch 22.