Joe Bullet Film
Louis De Witt | South Africa 1973 | 1h19m
Produced in 1973, Louis de Witt's South African blaxploitation crime film Joe Bullet was one of the first films in the country to feature an all black cast. In 1973 South Africa was still in the grips of apartheid and so after just two public screenings in the Johannesburg township of Soweto the film was banned by the government and not seen again for over forty years. Now, Joe Bullet has been digitally restored and is finally available, courtesy of the Gravel Road film restoration project. The film tells the story of a mysterious gangster who starts sabotaging soccer team The Eagles' chance at winning the upcoming championship final. In the criminal underworld of soccer, only our eponymous hero Joe Bullet can save the championship.
If you want to hear more about the restoration, attend our symposium on 28 October at Kelvin Hall, to find out about the process from the restorer himself.
This screening was part of AiM’s focus on Africa’s Lost Classics, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
Gravel Road Distribution
4 Loop Street
Phone: +27 (0)87 742 2322
A mere week before the championship final, local soccer team, The Eagles, fall prey to sabotage from a mysterious gangster. The team calls on the only man that can save their chances at victory – Joe Bullet. Joe fights villainous henchmen, escapes booby-trap bombs, and uses his martial arts skills to beat the gangsters. In the end, he must infiltrate the mysterious gangster’s hide-out in a dangerous mission to save not only The Eagles’ two kidnapped star players, but also his love interest, Beauty. The odds are stacked against him, but he’s the man that fights crime, the man that no one can tie down… JOE BULLET!
Louise de Witt was the brother of well-known South African film director Elmo de Witt. He started out as an assistant at Kavalier Films in the late 1950s, working with highly acclaimed South African directors including Jamie Uys, Jans Rautenbach, Dirk de Villiers, Bertrand Retief, and numerous other prolific filmmakers. Known to be a perfectionist, De Witt was always pushing the boundaries for the highest possible quality in his work. He was highly respected in the film industry and regarded as one of the country’s top lighting cameramen. De Witt teamed up with Tonie van der Merwe in 1970 to direct his first film, Joe Bullet. After the production of Joe Bullet, he formed his own company, Mojadji Films, and produced a number of African language movies. He died tragically in a car accident in 1995.
Cultural and Historical Context
The South African blaxploitation crime film Joe Bullet, modelled on something between Shaft and James Bond, was one of the first films in the country to feature an all-black cast. It features Ken Gampu, of The Gods Must Be Crazy fame. Gampu was a prolific South African actor who also spent some time in Hollywood in the late 1960s.
At the time of Joe Bullet’s release in 1973 South Africa was still in the grips of apartheid and so after just two public screenings in the Johannesburg township of Soweto the film was banned by the government and not seen again for over forty years. The banning order cited, among other issues, the portrayal of a black man with a gun, driving a nice car, and living in a nice apartment – thus, the censors were concerned how the film may influence the aspirations of black South Africans Black South Africans had very limited input and participation in filmmaking, bar peripheral characters in white stories, and their roles in B-movies specifically made for black audiences, until the end of apartheid in 1994. Thus, the notion of a film such as Joe Bullet without a single white face, where a strong, charismatic, powerful and virile Black hero saves the day, was too much for the authorities to handle. The film was later “unbanned” after special appeal, but it was never rereleased, until recently.
Producer Tonie van der Merwe made films under an apartheid subsidy scheme intended to create films for black audiences. For many, the “B-scheme” movies he had made – escapist fantasies, boys’ adventures, and morality plays – were tame and watereddown stories that did not reveal the realities of black South African people at the time. Van der Merwe successfully lobbied the government to set up a subsidy for making black films: the so-called B-scheme. The catch was that it meant making the sort of films that the Nationalist Government liked to see. In all, Van der Merwe had a hand in around 400 such movies. But as swiftly as it arrived, the B-scheme disappeared. In 1989, the government abolished the subsidy. With the regime change in the 90s, almost all traces of the B-scheme disappeared and Van der Merwe stopped making films.
A chance meeting between Van der Merwe and Benjamin Cowley, who runs a Cape Town production company called Gravel Road, led to the rediscovery of Joe Bullet. Cowley jumped at the chance to digitise Van der Merwe’s archive. Within a year, he had set up Retro Afrika Bioscope for this purpose. By the end of 2014, Joe Bullet was having its newly restored digital premiere in Durban. Tonie van der Merwe received belated recognition through an award at the 2014 Durban International Film Festival. The film is now back in circulation, has been screened at several film festivals, including at the Berlinale in 2015, and has also been released on DVD. A graphic novel of the film has also been created.
- Gavin Haynes, 2015, “Sollywood: the extraordinary story behind apartheid South Africa’s blaxploitation movie boom”, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/apr/14/apartheid-south-africa-black-cinema-blaxploitation-b-scheme-subsidy
- Atane Ofiaja, 2014, “Joe Bullet and growing up with Blaxploitation films in Nigeria https://thisisafrica.me/lifestyle/joe-bullet-growing-blaxploitation-films-nigeria/
- Retro Africa Bioscope: https://retroafrika.com/