Queen Mkabayi ka Jama is one of South Africa’s most powerful female icons in the history of the Zulu nation; not only was she the paternal aunt to one of the greatest warriors of all time, Shaka Zulu, she also painted and influenced historical records as an adviser and influencer of the leadership ranks in the Zulu culture.
She is King brings this powerful historical figure into contemporary settings in a musical film that showcases Johannesburg as the Broadway of Africa.
The title of the film is meant to act as a catalyst for discussion says producers Nicola Rauch and Mpho Ramathuthu; a female duo who are passionately involved in scriptwriting activism and training through their company The Griot.
“First and foremost, we wanted a title that causes discussion and entices people to watch the film. Why is she King and not Queen? Why is she royal at all? Who is She?’ co-producer Nicola Rauch enthuses.
She is King is based on the journey of Khanyisile Khumalo, a young talented Zulu performer from kwaNongoma in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), which is also the home of the Zulus and the place where Queen Mkabayi ka Jama’s grave is found.
The film follows young Khumalo as she leaves her home village of KZN and heads to the “big city’ in the hopes of pursing her dreams of reaching stardom under Johannesburg’s dazzling lights. She sets her heart on a musical audition in a great production based on the life story of Queen Mkabayi ka Jama and lands the life-changing role.
“I wanted to do a musical – I have always been a big fan – and the journey of a young person travelling from KZN to Johannesburg to seek their fortune/success is such a classic South African tale that I decided to use that story as the basic premise.’
She is King boasts a female cast made up of popular faces and young emerging talents including actresses Khanyi Mbau, Zoe Mthiyane, Mandisa Nduna, Gugu Zulu and Khabonina Qubeka – who is also the choreographer of the film.
Rauch affirms that the film has strong feminist themes – a young African woman really fighting to find her place, and her voice in the world. Therefore, she and her co-producer, Ramathuthu, wanted to explore a variety of characters that are representative of young South African women.
After penning their concept with a play on musical inspirations such as Smash and The Lion King, the pair decided to approach Gersh Kgamedi – a commercial director whom Rauch had worked with in the late 90s while making music and concert videos.
“I approached him after the first couple of drafts and with his deep love of music and massive knowledge; I knew he was the man for the job. He has also worked in commercials – among other things – for 20 years and I really wanted a high technical and aesthetic standard so he also checked that box,’ explains Rauch.
The two old pals then sought musical guidance and assistance from Vusi Khumalo. This included re-doing some classic 70s and 80s tunes as well as traditional Zulu melodies. “We have songs from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Juluka, Brenda Fassie, Jabu Khanyile and various others that are performed by our cast,’ informs Rauch.
The film was shot on an Arri Alexa Classic with four weeks of principle photography taking place in June and July last year as well as three pick-up days in December and March this year.
She is King is Kgamedi’s first feature film although he holds an honours degrees in drama and film. “She is King is a journey of self-discovery of our lead character, Khanyisile Khumalo. In this journey our character has to overcome a number of obstacles and a range of emotions, from elation, dejection, anger and so forth. It was important from the onset to visually establish a look and feel that captures the metamorphosis of our lead character’s journey from the rural plains of KwaZulu-Natal to the glitzy settings of Johannesburg, the city of gold. My overall approach was to treat the narrative in a photographic style that consists of vignettes and relevant montages designed to evoke a sense of pride throughout the characters’ journey,’ says Kgamedi. To best achieve this, he shares that he had to decide on which type of aspect ratio to use, “that would have an emotional impact for a viewer watching a musical film about a musical stage production.’ He explains: “The adoption of a particular aspect ratio became a thematic device that contributed to the visual storytelling of the film.’
When Khanyisile arrives in Johannesburg she is shy and reserved and is always in the background. “Visually it made sense to create deep staging for the scenes where Khanyi is in the background. Deep staging was also great because of the ensemble cast. For example in some scenes, we had the established cast members and the lead of the stage show in the foreground, with the chorus inhibiting the middle ground and background,’ explains Kgamedi.
Lighting also played an important element in the storytelling process and was used to convey and evoke emotions and to present the different character demeanours at play throughout the film. “To effectively capture our protagonist’s emotional journey, a combination of high-key and low-key lighting styles was used. The benefit of high-key lighting is that everything looks soft and innocent and the scenes look more magical and glowing. However high-key lighting in She is King does not have blown out whites and highlights. There are some shadow areas in the mid-tones but the shadows are soft. With low-key lighting, the shadows created a more contrasted look,’ Kgamedi expands.
As expected with a musical, the film showcases an abundance of upbeat moments and action scenes which were filmed on a Steadicam rig dolly and/or crane. “Movement was a major consideration in making the frame interesting: the movement of the camera, the movement of actors in the frame etc. The camera was loosely, but expertly controlled to find beautiful compositions in quick evolving situations interwoven with a more considered, classical approach when the focus was on our lead characters…The mobile camera made for a designed and sophisticated narrative that looks fantastic and very cinematic, and fit the genre of storytelling perfectly,’ Kgamedi says.
She is King will open in local cinemas on 1 December 2017.
The Gauteng Film Commission has expressed support for the film through funding and in finding locations that best showcase Johannesburg. Other contributions to the film include the Department of Trade and Industry, the P&A campaign and Indigenous Films.
The film has since been sold internationally to Flourishing Films and locally to M-Net for Mzansi Magic. “It will be on the Mzansi Magic in late 2018 and I believe on (DStv) Box Office and Showmax after that,’ adds Rauch.
“The South Africans who have seen it are very excited. It is extremely fresh – that is what we strived for. We made it first and foremost for the local audience. Anything else is a bonus,’ Rauch concludes.
• Camera: Arri Alexa Classic
She is King was shot on the Arri Alexa Classic using a Steadicam dolly/crane
Director: Gersh Kgamedi
Producers: Nicola Rauch and Mpho Ramathuthu
DOP: Jonathan Kovel
Editor: Tanja Hagen
Sound Recordist: Richard Mohlari
Music Department: Vusi Khumalo