The explosive play-based film Saturday Night at the Palace written by and starring Paul Slaboslepszy, was made just under two decades later Katrina, directed by Jans Rautenbach, in 1987.
A lot of changes have taken place since 1969. Angola and Mozambique gain independence in 1974 and give a fillip to political opponents of apartheid. Soweto explodes in the 1976 riot and Steve Biko, the popular black consciousness leader. is murdered by the police the following year. P.W. Botha succeeds Vorster as Prime Minister in 1978. Zimbabwe gains its independence in 1980 and the apartheid government loses its white ally Ian Smith.
Botha introduces the Tricameral constitution in 1983 in an attempt to co-opt the Coloureds and Indians into the political system, while continuing to exclude the majority black constituency. The United Democratic Front is launched in the same year in opposition to these moves, and it campaigns for majority rule. COSATU launches in 1985. The currency collapses and inflows of foreign capital dry up. The Botha government runs out of options. The economy is stagnant. Employers begin to replace unskilled white workers with cheap black labour.
This is the turbulent backdrop to the explosive racial tension in the film. Adapted from Slabolepszy’s stage play, the main action takes place outside Rocco’s Burger Palace, an all-night American-style roadside diner.
September, played by John Kani, is the clean-cut black family man who has recently been promoted to manager of the Palace and is pleased to be the new boss boy earning a little more. He is looking forward to returning laden with presents to his wife and two daughters back home in Newcastle for the first time in two years, and is closing up at the end of the night when two white men, punch drunk after a boisterous party, roar onto the forecourt of the diner on a bike.
Vince, played by Slaboslepszy himself, is a hothead. He is out of work, has been thrown out of his local soccer club and is about to be thrown out of the flat he shares with his friend, Forsie, for failing to pay the rent. He resents the fact that September, a black man, has been given the job of manager, a job once held exclusively by whites. On the one hand, he looks down at September who still has to call him baas and is restricted by the country’s segregationist laws; at the same time he feels powerless and humiliated without a job.
Forsie, his chubby friend, is a bit of a nerd and a loser. He hangs around the better-looking Vince in the hope of picking up girls but like at the party tonight, he loses the girl to Vince and resents this fact. On top of this, he has been avoiding telling the unpredictable Vince that he no longer has a home to return to.
The interplay between the three main characters reflects the shifting tensions and power plays of the country at the time. Vince is openly and unashamedly racist but feels powerless and cornered. ‘I’d rather maintain my dignity. Stay unemployed’ he barks, rather than work for a black. Forsie recognises that times have changed and it’s wrong to be racist but doesn’t have the guts to oppose Vince, and cannot yet come to terms with blacks as equals. September feels change in the air and is more positive about his future but still has to kowtow to the white baas.
The audience knows that everything is in place for an almighty blow up and the suspense is maintained by not knowing exactly how this is going to pan out. It’s a tense, tightly scripted film that makes for riveting viewing.
Next month, the BFI is showing films made in the post-apartheid period.