South Africa’s romcom revolution has reinvented Joburg


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Set in the middle and upper class cityscapes of Johannesburg, they depict affluent, beautiful and straight black figures falling in love with each other. An image from Catching Feelings with the main actors of the film: Kagiso Lediga and Pearl Thusi. (Netflix)

  • When Netflix went to live in South Africa, the streaming platform has been a game-changer for the country’s film and television industry.
  • During this period, the genre of black romantic comedy gained popularity in South Africa.
  • Set in the upper-class cityscapes of Johannesburg, the films portray rich, straight black characters falling in love with each other.

Netflix went live in South Africa on January 6, 2016. The arrival of the subscription-based streaming service was a game-changer for the country’s film and television industry, as it had been for others. country.

Around the same time – in 2015 and 2016 – there was another turning point for the South African film industry: the arrival of a new, commercially successful genre, the black romantic comedy.

For the first time, the country’s black filmmakers were able to make a box office impact – and continue to license their films on streaming platforms.

In South Africa, Netflix marked the turn of streaming for watching movies and TV series. Despite a recent slowdown in subscriber growth, Netflix has over 200 million paying subscribers worldwide. These numbers – and the way streaming services are reshaping the production, distribution and consumption of content – represent the most dramatic shift in the film industry in recent years.

On the African continent, this expansion has had to contend with the challenges of lack of accessibility, uneven connectivity and the cost of data. These keep Netflix out of the reach of the majority of the population. According to data, in 2020 Netflix still had just 1.4 million subscribers on the continent. Yet in a growing number of African countries, the acquisition and production of content for online streaming is a rapidly growing industry.

And it’s not just Netflix. South Africa-based Multichoice – owner of digital satellite TV service DStv and online subscription video-on-demand service Showmax – has fought effectively for this market. Before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Multichoice planned to produce 52 local films and 29 dramas in 2020.

The company claimed that DStv and Showmax doubled South African users between 2018 and 2019 and are now locally larger than Netflix – although it did not disclose the exact numbers.

African romcom seems perfectly suited to the streaming market. Versions of it are still in production and made available through streaming platforms today. South African Romcoms Ms. Right Guy (2016), Catch feelings (2017) and Seriously single (2020) are currently available on Netflix. They sit alongside a selection of Nollywood on the genre, including hits like The wedding (2016).

My recent article on this genre explores what some of these popular films reveal about the lifestyles and aspirations of the urban middle and upper classes. He also considers how they are reinventing Johannesburg, the city where most of the South African black romcoms take place.

The romcom revolution

The highest grossing local film in 2016 was Jaco Smit’s Afrikaans-language romantic drama, Vir Altyd (forever), which grossed over R15 million (over $ 1 million) in local theaters. It was followed by Thabang Moleya’s bling-saturated saturated romantic comedy from Johannesburg, Happiness Is a Four-Letter Word. That made an impressive R13.2million in a box office previously dominated by Afrikaans films and Leon Schuster slapstick comedies. In fourth place was Adze Ugah’s Mrs Right Guy, who grossed over R4 million by repeating one of the genre’s standard plots.

The previous year, Akin Omotoso had achieved Tell me something sweet, a romantic comedy set in Johannesburg’s downtown hipster hangout, Maboneng. It was one of the few black South African films since 1994 to have grossed nearly R3 million. South African audiences, commentators concluded, were fed up with smart and socially engaged films and were turning to genre films. In the words of journalist Lindiwe Sithole, “it seems South Africans are leaning towards lighter offers.”

To understand their appeal, it is worth asking what these films say about the time and place where they take place.

The end of the rainbow

Black South African romcoms break with the narratives of racial reconciliation and rainbow intimacies of a previous generation of romantic comedies in English. Think about White wedding (2009), where Elvis and Ayanda’s interracial marriage to Gugulethu is joined by right-wing Afrikaners ready to embrace racial diversity. Or I pronounce you now in black and white (2010), where a groom and a bride transcend the conflict between their Jewish and Zulu parents – or by Fanie Fourie Lobola (2013) where a couple must also overcome the cultural differences of their family.

On the other hand, Tell me something sweet, Ms. Right Guy and Happiness is a four letter word are visibly “black” films. Unlike the previous generation of English-language romcoms, they all have black directors (a sign that the South African film industry is slowly transforming).

Set in the middle and upper class cityscapes of Johannesburg, they mostly depict young, hip, well-off, handsome and straight black figures falling in love with each other – sometimes with divisions and disappointments to add spice to the quest. happiness, real passion. and true love.

Joburg, a glamorous global city

The emergence and widespread use of black South African romcom is also part of a larger trend in global South cinema, where the appropriation of Western commercial genres is accompanied by images of the “global city”.

Tell me something sweet Ms. Right Guy and Happiness is a four letter word reinvent Johannesburg by aligning it with imagery of global urban planning that is associated with the visual and narrative repertoires of contemporary African cinemas, such as the New Nollywood comedies in Nigeria. It challenges rhetoric and stereotypes of ‘African backwardness’ and is often captured in aerial or wide-angle shots of skylines made up of tall buildings, or through images of bright, gentrified, and cityscapes. sparkling.

But there is more to this, I argue. By representing a globalized version of Johannesburg, these films reflect their own contradictions. They take advantage of the aesthetics of an African global city even as they inevitably continue to remind us of the city’s social conflicts and socio-economic inequalities. They do this in their plots as well as in their images.

All three films repeatedly refer to a more authentic version of the city as an object of love and desire. This is evoked not only through the high angle shots of some of Johannesburg’s most densely populated urban areas, but also through the images of some of its newly gentrified inner city neighborhoods and through their characters’ desire to ‘love, live and be part of “the city”. .

These films are not simply a celebration of consumerist lifestyles. They also represent the tensions and dislocations that accompany the occupation by the black majority of rich urban spaces and its adherence to consumption practices from which it had been excluded for so long. It’s no surprise that they have proven to be popular, driven by the demand for streaming content.

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About Mitchel McMillan

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