Movie Review – Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation

Namibia: The Struggle For Liberation (2007)
Written & Directed by Charles Burnett

Charles Burnett has always wanted to make movies but has yet to be afforded the same opportunities as his more establishment-compliant peers in Hollywood. So in the 1990s, the director settled into making films for PBS, particularly documentaries often focused on Black history and individuals, attempting to go deeper than the cursory glance most Americans have of these figures in school. Martin Scorsese even included Burnett as one of the directors of an episode of his The Blues docu-series. Burnett also directed several made for tv movies, including an adaptation of the historical novel Nightjohn for the Disney Channel in 1996. However, one of Burnett’s most constant themes throughout his work has been centered on liberation, Black people pushing against white power structures to find genuine freedom, not wage slavery & oppression with a freedom label slapped on it. 

I won’t blame your average American for not knowing where Namibia is on a map or anything about their fight for liberation. I certainly didn’t until I watched this movie. From 1966 to 1990, a war was fought on the borders of Namibia and South Africa. From 1884 to 1915, Namibia was known as German South West Africa and was a colony of that European nation. During World War I, the white South African Allied forces invaded and pushed out the Germans. The League of Nations followed up at the war’s end with mandates on how the West could govern African and Asian territories that had once been under Germany’s control. The plan was not to let them determine their destinies but to simply put them under the control of other white European dictatorships. South Africa interpreted this mandate as annexation and was absorbed as a province of that nation without input from the Namibian people. 

By the 1950s, tension had built up between the Namibians and their captors. The film follows young Sam Nujoma, who has left his home village for a larger urban center where he is expected to find a wife and start a career. However, Nujoma keeps observing instances of South African forces brutalizing his people, so the man becomes involved in insurgency movements where they perform acts of guerilla warfare to undermine South African control. He also seeks advice from local clergy, including an African Catholic priest (Danny Glover), who is initially torn about what to tell these young people. Eventually, the movement to push back against the South Africans gained enough support, and forces from the Soviet Union provided supplies and air cover for the Namibians. Eventually, the United Nations capitulated and recognized Namibia’s independence causing the South Africans to withdraw and a democratic government to be founded. The first president elected was Sam Nujoma.

On a purely technical level, this is not the greatest film ever made. Prominent fake beards and cheap props are being used. It’s a film underwritten by the Namibian government to celebrate their independence and tell their story in a medium, so many other nations have used to communicate their struggle. I would expect most American viewers to watch this movie and want to laugh at it. They would claim it’s “cheesy” and “badly acted.” From an objective point of view, sure. However, I would counter-argue that all patriotic films are inherently cheesy by their very nature. They are idealist views of imperfect systems, whether the systems are well-meaning or not. I do not think I’ve ever seen a pro-America movie that I didn’t think was the corniest piece of shit ever made. The Patriot, Independence Day, 1776, Rocky IV, Top Gun, it’s a long list. They are all silly, shallow trash. 

What I point to in favor of Namibia: The Struggle For Liberation is that this is a story of national patriotism I haven’t had crammed down my throat dozens of times since I was a child. This was a new story of revolution and one that pushed back against Western narratives about the Cold War. The Soviet Union isn’t in much of the movie, but the role they play is very positive. It accurately portrays how the USSR would actively support leftist revolutionary movements worldwide to liberate working people to decide what country they want to live in. On the other hand, the United States and their Western allies never met a death squad they didn’t love and used organizations like the CIA to flood countries trying to better themselves with murderous right-wing militias. Anything to upset a chance at stability and actual freedom.

Apartheid-era South Africa was one of the worst countries on the planet, a vile, violent, craven society rooted in white supremacy that brutalized any & every African they could get their hands on. So it was incredibly positive to see African people fighting back, using a variety of tactics and adapting as the terms of the conflict shifted. This film is undoubtedly a government-backed picture that exists to instill in the Namibian people a sense of pride in those who fought to create their own government. I’d rather watch a hundred movies about revolutions of this sort than any more of the pro-American military propaganda being churned out in the form of Marvel movies and nostalgia bait.

Charles Burnett truly loves making movies and keeps doing it even if no bloated Hollywood contracts are being dropped in his lap. He truly is a filmmaker with integrity, unwilling to compromise his beliefs to make movies with a higher box office. Burnett has zero interest in making movies about the Black experience that caters to white comfort levels. His films are about his people, for his people. Yet, if you aren’t a self-centered white person, you can enjoy them too because they expand your understanding of the human experience. They highlight voices you are never going to have brought to your table; these are voices you must actively seek out. Burnett keeps making pictures; most recently, he directed a documentary about the intersection of Medicare and the Civil Right movement. After this series, I’d like to check out his documentary work now. 

Additionally, if you wanted to hear the man in his own words, The Criterion Channel has got you. Robert Townsend produced, directed, and co-stars in a short documentary called A Walk With Charles Burnett. In this short, Burnett & Townsend walk around Watts and talk about the featured director’s career and how this particular Black community influenced his art. It is worth checking out, as are all of Burnett’s movies, especially his work from the 1970s to 1990, especially.


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