Actress and writer Phumi, left, and her brother Muzi Mthembu created the Netflix film, African America, which was inspired in part by Phumi’s grave disappointment after living in America for almost a year. (Courtesy Photo)

By Nadine Matthews
Special to the AFRO

African-America, made by South African brother and sister team Muzi and Phumi Mthembu, is the latest entry in the “follow your dreams no matter the cost” genre of films. Well received at the 2021 Pan African Film Festival, it was bought by Netflix where it debuted last weekend. It was produced by Avril Speakes a graduate of the University of Maryland at College Park, who also produced the critically acclaimed coming of age film Jinn.

The film follows the journey of newly promoted, and newlywed, successful executive Nopumelelo (Lelo for short), who discovers an acceptance letter to Julliard that had been hidden for years by her mother. The thought that she had  been good enough after all, for all these years, overpowers Lelo to the point of distraction. She leaves everything she knows, including some of her morals, to chase her dream and prove herself ultimately worthy. She summarily flies from South Africa to New York and tries to become a Broadway star.

Phumi who co-wrote African America, and plays lead character Lelo, and Muzi who co-wrote and directed, spoke to the AFRO about what the film says about the notion of following dreams, the mythos surrounding boundless possibility in America, and similarities and differences between Black Africans and Blacks in the diaspora.

The screenplay was inspired in part by Phumi’s grave disappointment after living in America for almost a year. “I had spent time in New York, much like the character, trying to chase that Broadway dream. I came back extremely jaded, just because of the harshness of the realities of being Black in the United States.”

With America branded to the world as a place where anyone, no matter what their background can make it, Muzi shares that Phumi, “fell into a deep, deep, depression” after her trip to America where she encountered so much discouragement.

One positive takeaway was it made her realize being part of a racial majority can change lived experience, even in the midst of pernicious racism such as that similarly experienced by Black Americans and Black South Africans. “South Africans consider ourselves disadvantaged, but it was actually upon being in America that I actually realized the advantage of having a country where mostly you see people that look like you. I never understood how almost heartbreaking it must be, to be in a place where the images presented don’t reflect who you are.”

Ultimately Phumi learned that the grass is greener where you water it. “Whatever country you’re from, whatever nationality, really value the things that do work. That’s the character’s journey as well.”

The Johannesburg-raised filmmaking siblings are careful to point out that they aren’t saying things are much better in South Africa. Stated Muzi, “Making it in South Africa also comes with challenges about being black, because of how democracy came about. There was a rise in affluence for the politically connected. They seem to be the ones who are most upwardly mobile and most likely to be successful.”

Muzi expressed his belief that both South Africans and African Americans to differing degrees, “relate to that sense of displacement, looking for a place of belonging.”

The duo also reveal that on-screen depictions of Black people in South Africa are, at times, uncomfortably similar to those in America. “You find,” Muzi begins, “that same sensationalism around gangsters, affinity with poverty, criminality.” Whereas in America Black wealth is often seen as unimaginable unless related to sports or entertainment, Muzi tells Baltimore Afro that in South Africa, “Black wealth is seen as suspicious. There are accusations of corruption.”

Though African America doesn’t entirely escape some of the stereotypes, it does an incredible job of creating complex, relatable, three-dimensional characters who ultimately transcend those stereotypes. States Muzi, “We were aiming for something more universal than just this nightmare of black life. We held Nompumelelo accountable for her decisions in a way I don’t think Black characters often are.”

Behind the camera, experiences are also often the same as those Black people and Black actresses in particular, go through in America. Phumi, who is a curvy stunner, shared, “So often when we approached financiers and broached the idea of me playing the lead, it was looked at as preposterous because you are not of a certain shape or a certain look.” She said when she sought roles in America, she was often steered toward comic roles. “The person to be laughed at.” Muzi commented, “This is what the film is about. What do Black people do with their dreams in a world that is so decidedly anti-Black?”

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