Brave Noir World
Crime stories – in literature, art, film, theater, music – are now a global vernacular. Their popularity reflects the modernist fascination with the promise that detection — part intuition, part empirical reason – can unravel the mysteries of human evil, wrest law from lawlessness, return order to an unruly social world. But this history also bred a rogue, noir genre, ever more intent on questioning that order, and the very possibility of setting crime apart from innocence.
In fact, the political economy of crime-as-representation seems to be undergoing a transfiguration. Not that the older modernist genre has disappeared: mythic supercops, CSI techno-magicians, and preternatural sleuths still solve the mystery and bag the felon. But the rising new noir is more given to ironic, open-ended explorations of late modern scapes, their dreads and discontents. Its protagonists display a desire for, yet distrust in, criminal justice, a sense of the impossibility of its mandate, the unreliability of its truth-claims.
Ernest Mandel (1984) first noted this shift. With the rise of capitalism, he argued, the criminal became the antisocial enemy of bourgeois property and civility; his nemesis being the upright, crusading detective. His late modern counterpart, harking back to social bandits of earlier times, is less antisocial than entrepreneurial. Enjoying ambivalent popular admiration – think Tony Soprano, Omar Little, Walt White — he plays on both the erosion of bourgeois values and the growing entanglement of big business, government, and criminality; the cynical cops and vigilantes who pursue him are themselves more skeptical of the idea of an “absolute good,” more likely to breach the lines of il/legality. This changing economy of representation is perhaps most evident in television and film, especially in post-totalitarian, postcolonial societies, where changing ethico-legal regimes highlight the relativism of the law.
In South Africa, for instance, a vibrant filmic tradition is being repurposed for post-apartheid times. Johannesburg, epicenter of a history of colonial extraction and pulse point of the national pysche, is itself widely viewed as a crime scene. If, under apartheid, white media were haunted by fears of black terror, ordinary Africans were ruled by what Bloke Modisane famously dubbed “the banditry of the law,” in whose wake a lively strain of black crime writing took shape. Centered on the fabled Drum Magazine, it blurred the line between fiction and reportage, drawing on the Harlem Renaissance, gangster genres of the 1930s, and cinema noir to forge its own granular realism. Drum was preoccupied with the luminous figure of the outlaw, or tsotsi. Its sassy heroes foreshadowed the provocative postcolonial culture – youthful, black, urbane, roguish, chic – canonized in a novel genre of movies at the century’s end.
That culture was termed mapantsula, also the title of the nation’s earliest ant-apartheid feature film (1988), a Bildungsroman shot in Soweto that throbbed with “township jive.” It depicted the life of a petty thief ironically named Panic, a cool, streetwise hustler who disavowed formal politics for a defiant ethic of his own as he robbed wealthy, white beneficiaries of the racist regime. The film probes the moral ambiguity of life after colonialism, and also after liberalism: the limits and legitimacy of the law, the changing map of power in a world of deregulated capital. Mapantsula anticipates criminal life in the global postcolony, gesturing forward to the edgy genre of Jozi Noir, which would include features like Tstotsi, Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema, and Hijack Stories, productions that explore the often scary freedoms of the neo, noir world.
Tsotsi (2005), Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006, is based on a novel by Athol Fugard, in which a young thug finds unlikely salvation. It opens with a game of craps: life is determined by a roll of the dice, the odds still stacked against the black underclass. Tsotsi, orphaned by AIDS, has come of age in a colony of street kids, living amidst the detritus of the modern city. A cold-hearted killer, he makes a cut-throat living off an urban ecology in which nothing matters but money and survival. One day he jacks a BMW, only to find a bright-eyed baby in the back. Given Tsotsi’s world, the odds are not favorable for a triumph of the good. His eventual decision to honor life at its most vulnerable – he returns the baby to its parents – sits uneasily with the dispassionate alienation, and sardonic realism, of the life-story portrayed in the film.
Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema (2008) is an altogether more charged coming-of-age allegory. Jerusalema, the New Jerusalem, is Johannesburg, vortex of a postcolony most of whose black citizens now have law without order, desire without means. Lucky Kunene is a sharp township kid who cannot afford Business School, but sets about becoming a wise-guy of another sort. He extends the techniques of carjacking into the realm of inner-city real estate: his crew seize crime-ridden buildings owned by slumlords who exploit their pitiably poor tenants. Here the criminal economy finds a home in the ruins of the former metropolitan center, producing new kinds of wealth-in-property, indistinguishable from legitimate business. Again, the film draws it’s mise en scéne from life: Kunene, on whom the story is based, is in reality one of Jozi’s most notorious hoods. In the 1990’s, he perfected a scheme to jack apartment blocks from their rapacious owners, his thugs “ridding” the properties of drug dealers, pimps, and hookers, and winning over the residents.
In doing the same thing, the fictive Kunene becomes the proprietor of the “Hillbrow People’s Housing Trust.” A hoodlum philosopher, he juggles references to Donald Trump and Karl Marx. “Can capitalism be made to yield new forms of ‘win-win,’ post-racial redistribution?” The fictive Lucky presumes a universe in which one makes one’s own Luck. He is eventually apprehended, only to outsmart the police: Jerusalema looks for justice beyond the limits of the law. Like Tsotsi, it brooks no easy conclusion. The film ends with the bandit hero citing Marx: “After every revolution comes a new order,” he intones, “but before that comes opportunity.”
Movies like this are part of an intertextual, multimedia conversation that flows expansively through TV drama, talk radio, stand-up comedy, advertising, investigative journalism, and hiphop. A distinct visual aesthetic is part of this impulse, purveyed by seductive commodity-images that mix look, sound, allure, and cunning. It is a quality made flesh by those noir stars who play cynical picaros, like Rapulana Seiphemo. Seiphemo featured as Lucky Kunene, had a role in Tsotsi, and acted the charismatic hood in Hijack Stories (2000), a film that focuses more explicitly than any of the others on the ways in which crime fiction informs, and is informed by, ordinary experience in South Africa. Like other examples of this genre, it depends heavily on the sensibility of a streetwise black cast. The film opens with a man in a sharp business suit, leaving a store for his luxury car – to be set upon by gun-toting thugs. At its most terrifying moment, the scene is abruptly cut. We have been watching another kind of shooting: a TV show about a fictional township hood. Hijack Stories is about the interplay of violence and image, method acting and gangsterism, legitimate and criminal labor. The story is assertively postcolonial: it follows the quest of a young, educated black actor, Sox Moraga, who sets his heart on landing a role in a popular gangsta series. The very one, in fact, being filmed in that first scene of the Hijack Stories.
Sox is the offspring of the new South Africa, his parents having left the township to raise him in the sanitary suburbs of Johannesburg. Street thugs call kids like him “Mandela se goeters,” Mandela’s stuff/playthings. But it is not these cosseted “coconuts” who draw women, drive fancy cars, and capture the popular imagination. It is flashy hoodlums. Sox is too soft to “do township” with conviction. So he returns to the hood to “learn the moves” from gang-leader Zama – literally, “take a chance”– played by Seiphemo Rapulana. Disdainful of Sox’s desire to derive profit by mimicking a tsotsi, Zama gives him a lesson he will never forget. Crime is a skilled performance, one whose glamor inheres in its risks, and the film explores the dangerous erotics of a criminal mode of production. A profitable hit fuels orgies of consumption, in which the value “liberated” – the cash, cars, drugs, designer goods – circulates with sensuous abandon. All is fair in this “winner-takes-all” economy, driven by an endless interplay of incitement and consummation.” Racketeering, once again, is merely an intensified form of all risky business, one performance among many. The only real crime, here, is to misjudge the moves. Drawn into the game as a voyeur, Sox is all but undone by it. Meanwhile Zama goes to the TV studio to audition in his stead – and secures the role. It is the robbers, not the cops, who grasp the truth about life in the new, noir world.
Taken together, these movies make the point that, just as there is little to set criminal labor off from its legitimate counterpart, or truth from fiction, there is also little to restrain the mutual hijacking of life and image, of civic order and uncivil underworld, that has always been with us. And continues to be, albeit in reconfigured, hyperbolic form.