Jump the Gun
English Title: Jump the Gun
Country of Origin: South Africa/ United Kingdom
Studio: Channel Four Films
Director: Les Blair
Producer(s): Indra De Lanerolle
Screenplay: Les Blair
Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey
Editor: Oral Norrie Ottey
Runtime: 109 minutes
Language: English, Zulu
Volume: African / Nigerian
Jump the Gun opens with Clint (Newton), a white ‘sparky’ (electrician), and Gugu (Cele), an aspiring singer from Durban, arriving by train in Johannesburg. While Clint returns to a city of lawlessness and unfriendly black faces, Gugu sees opportunity, going to a party and hooking up with charming accountant/band manager, Thabo (Seiphemo). She also meets wheelchair-bound local gangster Bazooka (Nyembe) and slyly charms both on her quest to sing in a band. Clint, meanwhile, meets the prostitute Minnie (Burgers) in a bar run by JJ (Keogh) and begins a relationship with her.
JJ’s bar becomes the meeting point of Gugu, Minnie, Clint, Thabo and taxi driver Johnny (Van Heerden). Clint and Minnie’s relationship fumbles forward while Gugu rehearses with the band, but this sours her relationship with the possessive Bazooka, who keeps her prisoner in his house. Meanwhile, Clint is confronted with the reality of Minnie’s work.
Gugu defies Bazooka, Minnie seeks reconciliation with Clint, and the action concludes at JJ’s where Thabo’s band performs to a packed house.
Jump the Gun is often overlooked in surveys of post-apartheid film, but in its easy going way it is a significant film in the cultural landscape of South Africa’s fledgling democracy. It might lack the gloss and high-profile cast of Darrell Roodt’s Cry the Beloved Country (1995), but it is a far more authentic representation of South African identities in transition.
Its key strengths are Les Blair’s unfussy direction of the characters’ journeys through working-class Johannesburg and the work-shopped dialogue and performances of the actors. The result is a story that doesn’t poeticise the sometimes unpleasant realities of working-class urban life, and that is populated by a cast of believable, multi-faceted characters. There is an essential humanity to all the characters that transcends the simplistic binaries of heroes and villains. Bazooka may be a car thief prone to violence, but the audience is also encouraged to regard him in a sympathetic light, just as Clint’s racism is tempered by the nuanced contextualisation of his character: as Lesley Marx writes, ‘he is one of those paradoxical figures: the white working-class man who has more to do with blacks on the ground than any of the liberals who despise his racist views and modes of expression.’
Clint’s arrival in Johannesburg immediately sets up the film’s examination of identities in flux. His (and the film’s) opening lines establish his racism and weary resignation to change: ‘South Africa’s getting quite African lately, hey?’ Just afterwards, in JJ’s (the bar), the white taxi driver Johnny asks: ‘You from out of town?’ to which Clint replies, ‘Out of touch’. Clint is now a stranger in a city in which he once felt at home. Being out of touch is also not the province of white South Africans alone: when Bazooka and Thabo argue later in the film, Bazooka tells his white-collar former friend that he has ‘lost touch’ with the township.
Gugu treads a well-worn path as the black migrant to the big city seeking a new start and a rise to relative fame, but she is also framed in interesting ways. While there is no doubt her body is exploited by the camera, it is nonetheless refreshing to see black sexuality represented in an honest and direct way. Moreover, Gugu’s escape from Bazooka’s house and her final confrontation with him confirms her as an individual capable of prospering in the city on her own.
Despite Minnie reprising the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ stereotype, her character is given additional complexity. We might sympathise with her anguish over the child taken from her by Child Welfare, but there is no evil foster home or pious father to further slant our sympathies. The film’s denouement – with Clint on a train out of Johannesburg while Gugu braids Minnie’s hair on a utopian green hill amidst the city’s high-rises and busy streets – also suggests a new South African optimism based not only on race but also gender.
The confrontation outside JJ’s consolidates some of the film’s themes, particularly male violence and firearms. After Bazooka has fired three harmless shots at Gugu and Thabo, Minnie screams, ‘Why must these fucking men always carry guns?’. Gugu replies calmly, ‘It’s just an African trying to prove his manhood,’ the impotence of men with guns reinforced by Clint rolling on the ground comically trying to get his illegally purchased gun out of his belt before dropping it on the ground.
Crime, or more accurately the fear of crime, complements the theme of men with guns: it is after Clint witnesses a mugging that he decides to arm himself. This sets up a trajectory that points to – and even references – Taxi Driver, setting up Clint as the urban outsider and anti-hero. Clint’s last ‘act’ before leaving is to stand at the window of his room and train the unloaded gun on a black pedestrian, before pulling the trigger. It is another act of impotence, juxtaposed ironically with the prominent view of his T-shirt on which is emblazoned: ‘South Africa: one serious crime is committed every 17 seconds’.
Loren Kruger’s assertion that ‘Jump the Gun remains preoccupied with white anxieties about race and crime that dominated fictions of the interregnum’ is true, but the film’s normalizing of black urban residents’ professional, creative and sexual lives marks a significant shift in South African film. Ultimately, Jump the Gun’s narrative and creative process indicate an intelligent, progressive approach to representing South Africa on film.
Author of this review: Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk