One man takes a stand against the force of a dictator.
Dir. Lucy Bailey & Andrew Thompson, 2009, 90 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
Mugabe and the White African is the most paranoid movie I’ve seen in a while. Filmed mostly covertly, it’s an uncomfortably personal look at the lives of those who live under the thumb of repression. It’s also a vision of a reversal of the usual paradigm of institutional racism, as Zimbabwe is a country with programs that discriminate against a white minority in favor of the black majority. It’s a harrowing look at an ugly national situation.
When Rhodesia became an officially recognized state in 1980 (subsequently, it was rechristened Zimbabwe), the hooks of colonialism were still dug in deep. One of the most visible manifestations of this was that most of the best farmland in the country was still owned by members of the white elite. Over the decades, different plans have been adopted in an attempt to correct this imbalance, and the most recent, begun in 2000, essentially allows the government to forcibly seize farms from their owners. This policy was not approved by voters, but that matters little to the government of Robert Mugabe, since, you know, he’s a brutal dictator.
But despite the overwhelming odds against him, one farmer, Mike Campbell, decided to try to fight against his land being taken away. He took the Zimbabwe government to court before a tribunal held by the Southern African Development Community. All he had to do was prove that there was no reason his farm was being taken besides the fact that he was white. Which wasn’t hard, since it was true. Unfortunately, if Mugabe listened to what any other authorities told him, he wouldn’t be a very good dictator.
Mike, his wife, and his son were kidnapped and tortured by thugs hired by the government. During the filming of this movie. An omnipresent specter of grimness hangs over all the proceedings. Even when the case seems to be going well, there’s an uneasy fog in the air. In one unnerving sequence, a hidden camera sees a man who’s come onto Mike’s property ranting against him, and telling him of how he will soon lose what he has.
The racial resentment runs deep in places here, which, frankly, makes total sense, but reversing the oppression is clearly helping no one. Colonialism has been replaced with adipose cronyism, and the people of Zimbabwe are no better for it. Mike is an African, his ancestry be damned. True, he wouldn’t have his holdings without a history of imperialism, but he’s spun that into something beneficial to his community. He employs hundreds of workers whom he treats well. He’s got a good thing going. When his farm is seized, it will likely be turned over to some rich bureaucrat instead of another farmer. It’s dire straights.
Mugabe and the White African is a troubling, dark film. There are no easy answers to the issues faced by Zimbabwe, or many other post-colonial African nations, for that matter, but there are unquestionably better ways than what is being done now. Mike Campbell died last year, still plagued by injuries he sustained while being tortured. Zimbabwe is still a poor country. Robert Mugabe will likely die of old age, wealthy, powerful, and unpunished. This is a downcast portrait of cycles of hatred in motion.