No matter how inspired, honest or historically accurate they are, movies about the genocides and bloody political upheavals in various parts of Africa have always been doomed at the box office. From Something of Value, Richard Brooks’ powerful 1957 film about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, to more recent entries like Hotel Rwanda-and dozens in between–people sniff a brief synopsis and ask, “What else is playing?” Ninety-nine percent of the world’s moviegoers are either ignorant, indifferent or just plain confused by everything African–including where it is (I still can’t tell the Tutsi refugees from the Hutu militia). And so, I fear, it will be with The Bang Bang Club. Applause is deserved, but if ticket sales are as passive as I predict, it means overlooking a very good movie indeed.
A debut feature by South African documentary filmmaker Steven Silver, this harrowing exploration of heroism in the line of fire chronicles the dangerous turmoil during the final days of 1994, between the bloody aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of apartheid, as seen through the lenses of the four charter members of an eponymous and exclusive collective of photojournalists who called themselves the Bang Bang Club because they were always in the middle of the gunfire. Following them through the perils of front-line camera work in Soweto as they capture the carnage ripping through a country in flames for the Johannesburg newspaper The Star, the film tackles so many subjects–the Zulu uprising, the Inkata Freedom Party, the United Democratic Front, the South African Defense Force and the African National Congress–that only a diplomat could comprehend it all. But if the politics unfold in confusing ways, the centerpiece story of the brave but competitive quartet of thrill-seeking adventurers who risk life and limb in South Africa and elsewhere in order to get their photos on the wire services before the rest of the press corps builds and grips attention like a hammerlock hold.
The four photographers, honored in books and magazines to this day, are Greg Marinovich (an exemplary Ryan Phillippe), Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Ken Oosterbroek (Frank Rautenbach) and Joao Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld). Even though writer-director Silver’s screenplay is skimpy and perfunctory, each man is fleshed out just enough to make us like and memorialize them (Mr. Marinovich and Mr. Silva, both still alive, acted as invaluable technical advisers). Charged by the need to tell the truth about Africa’s civil war and fueled by moral outrage, they have as their ally Robin Coley (played by Malin Akerman), the courageous photo editor of The Star who helps galvanize international opinion to wipe out apartheid. Marinovich wins a Pulitzer Prize for his photos of a burning man being hacked to death in the thick of a violent street riot, and Kevin Carter wins another Pulitzer for a horrifying image–depicting a starving Sudanese child hunched weakly on the ground, being stalked by a cold-eyed vulture–that shakes the world off its axis. Carter becomes famous, but privately he is so devastated by guilt (he does nothing to save the little girl) that he self-destructs on drugs and commits suicide. He’s the most interesting, conflicted member of the Bang Bang Club (a breakout performance by the riveting Canadian-born actor Taylor Kitsch), but his story has been relegated to a supporting role to provide more room for Mr. Phillippe’s glamorous star power.
Still, the four actors share all of the action: You see them walking down the street lugging their heavy camera equipment in harm’s way, attacked by mobs wielding machetes, dodging sniper bullets. The film explores their friendships and rivalries and reveals a lot about people who crave the adrenaline of danger and place so little value on their own safety. The more fearless you are, the more photos you sell. You’re not guaranteed protection just because you hold a press pass, you always face another enemy you didn’t know you’d made and the amnesty a journalist deserves is never forthcoming. Mr. Silver crowds so much material into shortly under two hours that the result has a fragmented effect. Important themes get short shrift, such as egotism, the resentment aimed at white journalists covering a black man’s war who are gaining world celebrity exploiting South Africa’s struggles and the fact that helping the police by identifying actual criminals in court only makes them targets themselves. Only a bullet can stop the mounting hazards they face daily, and the atrocities they witness take a ravaging toll.
And still, when the wars end, what next? For men like these, there’s always another hell, and death marches on.
The Bang Bang Club
Running time 107 minutes
Written and directed by Steven Silver
Starring Ryan Phillippe, Taylor Kitsch, Malin Ackerman