In Silverton Headquarters (Netflix), the directorial debut of Mandla Dube, three fighters from uMkhonto we Sizwe (“MK”), the armed wing of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, find themselves in a desperate standoff with South African authorities when their mission of sabotage goes wrong and they take hostages in a bank in 1980 in Pretoria. The siege becomes an incubator for the racial discord at work in apartheid-era South Africa and the ultimate cost of freedom.
The essential: Pretoria, South Africa, January 1980. Calvin Khumalo (Thabo Rametsi), together with Terra (Noxolo Dlamini) and Aldo (Stefan Erasmus), fight to free themselves from apartheid, committing acts of sabotage on power stations and other industrial facilities. Their ultimate goal? “Make the country ungovernable,” says Khumalo. “The white minority regime left us with only one option: violence.” When their tactical operation against an oil refinery is spotted by police, a wild chase through downtown Silverton ensues, resulting in an ongoing shootout and casualties. As Captain Langerman (Arnold Vosloo) and his officers close in, Khumalo and his team spontaneously hide in a bank, where they take employees and customers hostage. And suddenly the saboteurs are at the center of a slowly boiling siege.
Silverton Headquarters is based on real events, when in 1980 freedom fighters took 25 hostages in a Praetorian bank and demanded the release of ANC leader Nelson Mandela from federal prison. Here, this demand becomes the fictional Khumalo’s outsized bargaining chip, as his efforts to arrange a safe exit are thwarted and he offers the lives of his hostages for the freedom of his leader. Khumalo’s request also triggers the usual series of clichés about hostage negotiation movies. Tense phone calls with Langerman regarding escape helicopters. Requests for food and water for the hostages. The dismay at the time and bureaucracy of navigating to secure Mandela’s release, with Langerman both a cop for the Afrikaans establishment and a reluctant ally of Khumalo and his goals. As a racist bank clerk escalates the tension inside the bank and questions linger about a potential renegade among the freedom fighters, an arrogant general and his soldiers arrive outside. It’s another shot of the siege, the authorities press on as locals are usurped, and Captain Langerman’s gloved approach falters as army snipers take up the bank and the brigadier launches hate speech against apartheid. Time is running out for Khumalo, with his own freedom and that of his people at stake.
What movies will this remind you of? Earlier this year, Netflix released the contemporary South African crime thriller Amanda, from another early director to Nerina De Jager. And the streamer was inspired by another episode in the history of the continent with the years 2016 Siege of Jadotvillestarring Jamie Dornan as the outnumbered commander of an Irish battalion of United Nations troops who in 1961 fought off a siege by Congolese soldiers and French and Belgian mercenaries in the Republic of the Congo.
Performance to watch: Thabo Rametsi and Noxolo Dlamini provide the strength in the center of Silverton Headquarters like Calvin and Terra, the freedom fighters uMkhonto we Sizwe who barricade themselves in the bank.
Memorable dialogue: Khumalo knows it’s a zero-sum game. The bank is surrounded by a police and military cordon, rifles raised. So he builds a reason that is bigger than the seat. “They won’t let us out,” Calvin tells Terra and Aldo. “But if our lives are worth nothing, maybe we are negotiating for a life that is worth everything. What if we turned this into movement? Enter his Mandela ultimatum.
Sex and skin: Nothing.
Our opinion : Despite its apartheid-era setting and factual premise – it was three men who took over the Silverton bank and demanded Mandela’s release, which in turn helped spark a wider movement to obtain his release – Silverton Headquarters ends up leaning too heavily on themes worn out by hostage negotiation films, to the point that its message about peoples’ struggle for freedom ultimately seems dull. The inclusion of a black American boxing promoter among the hostages, for example, who has to reckon with the civil rights movement when it comes to African nationalism, or the banking executive who all too conveniently has family ties to the government of apartheid of Prime Minister PW Botha and a militant tendency of its own. Add to that the infighting between Khumalo and his fellow freedom fighters over who sold them out to the cops, and Silverton invites too many examples of convenience in the tale of a hostage taker dueling a police negotiator for safe and tenuous passage.
That said, the film does a good job of establishing its early ’80s African setting, complete with era-specific vehicles, wardrobe and gear for the police surrounding the bank, and nods to its roots in history by dramatically cutting the frenzied wire service-style noir. -and-white sets whenever deadlock spills over the steps of the building. The sequence leading up to the eventual siege is also paced and edited, particularly a pitched gunfight in the tight surroundings of a public arcade. Period music by Fela Kuti, Sello “Chicco” Twala and Johnny Clegg & Juluka complete the evocative backdrops.
Our call: SPREAD IT. Silverton Headquarters falls prey to the standard cliche of hostage negotiation movies, but it’s backed up by some interesting period touches and strong central performances.
Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicagoland. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glenganges