Films based on a true story are hard to watch for me. Often, they highlight some tragedy and trauma that eventually led to something incredible changing. The reason I phrase it this way is because often biopics and true stories embrace trauma for trauma’s sake, and to see that depicted on screen is voyeurism I’m not sure I’m okay with the older I get, especially when it’s that of marginalized populations. That said, even in all the pain, there can be fine films under it all and that’s where Netflix Original Silverton Siege finds itself.
Directed by Mandla Dube and written by Sabelo Mgidi, Silverton Siege follows a group of freedom fighters, the Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), in 1980 apartheid South Africa. When they realize they’ve been set up while on a high-profile mission to sabotage a petrol depot, the trio, Calvin (Thabo Rametsi), Mbali (Noxolo Dlamini), and Aldo (Stefan Erasmus), find themselves on the run from the police. In order to survive, the three take refuge in a bank holding the staff and patrons hostage, while the police mount outside.
Silverton Siege is all about tension. While the trio has to deal with racists inside and outside, the film also tries to build understanding between the characters. Including a Black American fight promoter and a light-skinned woman who was trying her best to pass for white, standing in the whites-only teller line. In these moments, Calvin stands as a character to mediate every world in this film. He’s the leader of the MK trio, he’s discussing demands with the police, he’s calming hostages, he’s trying to bridge gaps between Black experience, and ultimately he begins the free Nelson Mandela movement.
While Calvin is driving some emotional plot points, Silverton Siege is highly focused on upping internal and external tensions between the trio and the police. This is complicated when the three reach an agreement that someone on the inside, perhaps one of them, is an “Impimpi“ – a police spy. The question, though, is who is it? With that hanging in the air, the pressure mounts and the tensions between hostages, the trio, and the police cause elements to unravel.
As the situation devolves and they survive one attempt on their life, the trio recognizes that their only option is directly confronting the police, and that will end in prison or death. Hoping to use the high visibility of their stand-off to cause change, they decide to negotiate for the release of Nelson Mandela.
While the film is inspired by true events, the real MK Cadres involved were named Stephen Mafoko, Humphrey Makhubo, and Wilfred Mandela. As the end credits of the film show, the Silverton Seige help launch the movement that led to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. The choice to change the names of the MK trio is a choice. While this allows the main cast to have a woman in it, it leaves the question of if the real intent was to tell the story of the Silverton Siege or to tell a story that uses it like a plot to highlight the injustices and trauma of 1980s South Africa.
That said, there are active choices made with Silverton Siege where it feels like a movie aimed to show that not all white people were bad in South Africa, just some. Included for what feels like comforting white audiences watching the film, the conversations between Calvin and these characters, a bank teller who is the daughter of a racist public official, a priest, and the lead cop on the case, seem to always find a middle ground, or they try to convince Calvin that they aren’t the enemy.
In truth, the most moving connection that Calvin makes is with Rachel (Michelle Mosalakae), a light-skinned woman who he meets standing in the whites-only line. The two bump heads initially with his anger at Rachel’s attempt to pass as white. Talking with each other, Rachel is given a complex backstory that explains her choice, and, in a dramatic moment where she’s confronted with the racist violence, she decides to remove her wig and reveal her braided natural hair.
But that’s really where the moving elements of the film stop. For the most part, Mbali and Aldo are one-dimensional characters. Capable and strong, the two are fine additions to the cast, but ultimately the time to explore characters in Silverton Siege is given to Calvin, the white characters in the bank, and Detective Langerman.
While the impact the events that inspired Silverton Siege had are important to highlight, I have to question who the audience for the film is and what will they get out of it. Additionally, going into the film without prior information, I wasn’t aware of the true events until the film’s credits, which features pictures of the trio involved in real life with some context on the event and what it sparked. But that weight isn’t felt throughout the film. Instead, pain and violence is on display first and foremost without a clear vision of the impact the event and those involved had. If your film’s credits do more work to showcase historical impact than the film itself, well, it’s a bit of a miss.
Don’t get me wrong, Silverton Siege is a fine film, if you’re okay with sitting through apartheid violence and a bleak ending involving the Black cast. But if you’re not, this is one to skip and instead brush up on the history of Mandela’s Umkhonto weSizwe to fight arpartheid and the fight to free him as well.
Silverton Siege is streaming exclusively on Netflix April 28, 2022.
- Rating - 7/107/10
Don’t get me wrong, Silverton Siege is a fine film if you’re okay with sitting through apartheid violence and a bleak ending involving the Black cast. But if you’re not, this is one to skip and instead brush up on the history of Mandela’s Umkhonto weSizwe to fight arpartheid and the fight to free him as well.