Movie Mix

Stander Delivers

Writer/director Bronwen Hughes has managed to make anti-Apartheid activity look dashing in the biopic of white Afrikaner Andre Stander.
You may not know who Andre Stander was but Stander, the movie about this modern South African folk figure, brings back vivid memories of the struggle against Apartheid. Not a conventional political statement, the film revives the righteous rebellion that peaked for Americans during the 1980s trade sanctions and the stirring protest anthem "Sun City" (that was a key example of 80's multiculti pop, made into a rousing music video by Jonathan Demme). Americans intrinsically know something of Andre Stander's defiant spirit but writer/director Bronwen Hughes and the film's star Thomas Jane extend that defiance into a welcome action-movie myth.

Stander, who was a white Afrikaner and not a freedom fighter, served on the Johannesburg police force. He was part of the riot squad that quelled the 1976 Soweto uprising. After that experience of a brutal ruling minority attempting to crush the blacks and students seeking equal rights – several were in fact killed – Stander flipped and opposed South Africa's social system by becoming a bank robber. This would be a dishonest movie if it attempted to show Stander as a Robin Hood figure. Instead it takes a more complex approach by illustrating the young man's moral objection but insisting upon his restless dissatisfaction.

As portrayed by American actor Thomas Jane (who first came to prominence opposite Ice Cube and Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea), Stander bears some resemblance to the role Cube played in Dangerous Ground (1996) as a transplanted hiphopper living in South Central Los Angeles who returns home to South Africa to bury his father and find his misguided brother. This represents a convoluted Hollywood approach to non-political heroism that is a rather typical mainstream way of seeming topical without too much specificity. Just as Cube had no political position, only acting out of a sense of necessity, Jane's Stander reacts personally, following what could be called a personal sense of honor. He feels the need to take down South Africa's institutions by attacking banks – symbols of its economy. ("He has made us look impotent in our own country," says one of the cops chasing Stander.) But the fascinating thing about Hughes' movie is that it shows this mischief – although only linking it to the Oedipal conflict of Stander's relationship with his father General Stander (played by Maurius Weyer) – with a genuine, deep-hearted sense of triumph.

While Stander is in prison (after three years of flouting the laws he once pledged to uphold), the movie switches the usual Hollywood tactic that would have our hero being taught by an actual black character about how heinous and deeply entrenched are the flaws of South African politics and racial injustice because Stander knows that already. Thus, he meets two other white convicts: David Patrick O'Hara's Allan Heyl, a burly Burt Reynolds' type, and Dexter Fletcher's skittish Lee McCall, run-of-the-mill criminals whose portraits further represent the discontented class in Johannesburg society. A moving speech by Heyl directly connects this discontent to South Africa's racial inequality, yet the film's moral thrust – and the thrill these three gang members get out of bank robbing – expresses a simpler, all-too-human fervor. They're rebels running alongside a cause.

As a result of this undisguised mythic narrative approach, Stander exposes how rare it is to see a movie where the activity of bad-ass characters is held up to moral or political scrutiny. It especially embarrasses the fake sociological alibis used in the ludicrous 1996 female-bank robbers movie Set It Off. That film wound up disgracing the plight of ghetto sisters, while Stander illuminates the unacceptable ideology of Apartheid. It accomplishes this because Hughes shrewdly positions Stander's legend to do more than seduce audiences with the pleasure of free money and greed. (Money itself means little to Stander who always had it.) Hughes cleverly critiques that culture's whites-only ideology. It was a social and psychological problem that would inevitably, eventually lead to dissension – whether Nelson Mandela's, the type Stevie Wonder sang about, or the type Denzel Washington portrayed as Steven Biko in Cry Freedom.

Acting out the white perspective, Thomas Jane has the unique fortune of making anti-Apartheid activity look dashing. Jane brings nuances to the part that reveal Stander's personal neuroses (his second marriage to the same woman Bekka played by Deborah Kara Unger makes this plain). But Stander's quasi-hipster legend is more than entertaining (that's all you could say of Johnny Depp's comic bad-boy performance in Pirates of the Caribbean), Jane makes it enlightening. In the scenes where Stander commits his robberies in broad daylight, sometimes in disguise but mostly simply dressed as himself, the film offers one of the most remarkable revelations in the history of mainstream movies: It dramatizes The Invisibility Of Whiteness.

For those academics and action film fans who were thrilled by the exploitation of race in The Matrix movies, Stander presents more intriguing fodder for intellectual dissection. It's a morally-committed action movie that, in its honesty, shames the subliminally racist antics of movies that ask filmgoers to worship Arnold Schwarzeneger, Sly Stallone, Bruce Willis and more recently Matt Damon in The Bourne Conspiracy and Tom Cruise in Collateral. Those actors embodied shameless, unprincipled action. Thomas Jane exposes the privilege that mainstream culture affords even to white criminals and killers. Jane's Stander behaved selfishly (and ironically was killed in multiculti Miami after having eluded South African authorities), yet his story still stands for something.
Armond White is film critic for the New York Press. White was staff writer for The Nation for 12 years (1984-1996) and is the author of two books on pop culture.
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