The Uncanny of Martyrdom: Watching The Death Knell (Le Glas)

The Death Knell (René Vautier, France/Rhodesia/Algeria, 1964, 5 min.) is a stunning film. The poem read by the brilliant Djibril Mambety. The music, at once both dirge and waltz. The artwork offered in lieu of René Vautier’s original footage, which had been confiscated by the Rhodesian state. Watching it now for the first time is to enter the uncanny, to feel the hope, the certainty of immanent justice. It is also to feel the outrage, even as one already knows that the freedom for which James Dhlamini, Victor Mlambo, and Duly Shadrack were martyred in 1968 long ago gave way to Mugabe’s despotism. Such uncanniness is all the more painful, all the more chilling in this historical moment when the world is awash in the forces of greed and hatred, when the cancer of white supremacy has metastasized anew. When the hopes of the Arab Spring, of Syriza, of Chris Hani, like the hopes of 1968, have given way to the harsh realities of global oligarchy and permanent war. Yet this is also a moment when the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town has been smeared in human excrement, when Bree Newsome has climbed the flagpole in South Carolina’s state capitol and removed that symbol of hatred. Anger and bravery are not gone; one chimurenga inevitably follows another.

The film centers on the execution of James Dhlamini and Victor Mlambo, two members of the famed Crocodile Gang, along with Duly Shadrack, about whom far less is known (at least by me). The Crocodile Gang was a small commando unit formed in 1964 in exile in Zambia. Their mission was terrorist. They struggled with and killed a white motorist who turned out to be an Afrikaner branch chairman in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia Front Party, but spared his wife and small child. The Crocodile Gang was short lived. Woefully undertrained and unprepared, they were easily captured. But these terrorists were heroes. They succeeded in punching a small hole in the triple chokehold of institutionalized racism, settler colonialism, and predatory capitalism such that Africans might again allow themselves to reimagine a way to breathe. From this early seed would grow a full-blown insurgency, a revolution—the second Chimurenga, as the Zimbabwean war for independence is known.

The execution of these revolutionaries was global news, covered in newspapers from New Zealand to Africa, from Europe to the US. Jet magazine’s story was accompanied by a photo of a British policeman, about to slam a Black protestor on the head outside of Rhodesia House in London. Gunmen, nightstick men, gangsters, cops of the world. “The same guns, the same clubs,” as the poem says. The more things change, or so the saying goes….

This Pan-Africanist montage marks a moment of creative and political solidarity and vision. The music was given to the filmmaker by three Black Panthers he met at the Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers. The repeated invocation of Egypt, Guinea, Congo, and Algeria references a trajectory of self-determination, a historical timeline of African independence that subverts any Saharan divide or cleaves the predations of French, Belgian, or British colonialism from one another. The references to slavery and Uncle Toms bring the brutality of Rhodesian colonialism within a larger capitalist and cultural system of racial formation and white supremacist logic. While the calls to Zimbabwe within the poem remind viewers that European domination is only a recent moment in the very, very long durée that is African history. The architecture, trade, politics, and urbanity evidenced in the spectacular medieval Great Zimbabwe were feats that European myth-making simply could not bear.

And yet in 1969, the same year the film was made, the year of the Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers, Nigeria was torn apart by civil war. Only a few years earlier Zanzibar had erupted in profound bloodshed as African revolutionaries overthrew the Sultan and drove the Arab descendants of their former colonizers from power. Refugees spilled out, eventually forced to “return” to an Oman most had never known. It was not only “Europe’s rule” (as the poem references) to which Africans had been subject. Gulf labor is in some sense an old beast, even if profit has shifted from Oman to the Emirates. The shared experience of white rule could not erase that there had been an Arab slave trade nor that elites could seek and find advantage in complex alliances that bridged racial divides. Within a few years Uganda would expel its South Asian population. During the civil war, ZANU sent members to China for training. Now China is the largest investor in Zimbabwe. To understand Africa, no less than any other point on the globe, one must tend to what Lisa Lowe has called “the intimacies of four continents.”

Some commentators in present day Zimbabwe, like Vince Musewe, see how other African leaders and African institutions have continued to play ball with their despot as evidence of the death of Pan-Africanism. Certainly, he has a point. The cynicism of political elites and institutions reveals the underside of any easy sense that there is a pure line of power and struggle. The Biafran War is only one of the earliest of many such conflicts to follow. But acknowledging the limits of Pan-Africanism does not mean casting aside the imaginative possibilities and the political potential that global Blackness holds. Nor does it mean failing to recognize that white supremacy maps those same connections. Dylann Roof, the mass-murderer of Black people gathered for Bible study at Charleston’s Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, wore the Rhodesian flag on his jacket.

Watching The Death Knell in 2016, as I first did, during the long-awaited, yet nonetheless terrifying and uncertain death of neoliberalism, made the film especially startling in its familiarity. All the more so eight months later as violence and uncertainty are becoming yet more urgent. The pop art send-up of a cartoon Queen Elizabeth is surely among the boldest and most enduring moments in this thoroughly brilliant film—for with the hypocrisy of Queen Elizabeth lies the deceit of liberalism. The film depicts this queen, the embodiment of empire, in all her jarring mixture of frivolity and violence. Her diamonds—the very bedrock of Africa, pried from the ground by Black labor–sparkle. Her speech bubble speaks not to justice, but in the tropes of manners and class. Her disdain at the crassness of the current regime sits ironically with any assumption that it is she who possesses the right to pardon an African attempting to reclaim his land, his body, his nation.

The murderers are again roaring with laughter. The Death Knell is a film whose time has come again.

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Julie Livingston

Julie Livingston is professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University. She is the author of Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic (Duke University Press), Debility and the Moral Imagination in Botswana (Indiana University Press), and numerous articles and essays and edited volumes and special journal issues. Livingston is the recipient of the Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing, the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Wellcome Medal, and the American Association for the History of Medicine’s William Welch Medal. In 2013 she was named a MacArthur fellow.