Joe Bullet must have been an extraordinary sight to Sowetan cinema-goers in 1973. Ken Gampu’s on-screen presence echoed Roundtree’s Shaft or Connery’s Bond in his sheer, suave physicality. Rooted firmly in the action tradition, the film’s plot centres on a shadowy mobster trying to fix a championship football final. There is intrigue, murder, and only one person to call – Joe Bullet!
In making the film, businessman-turned-producer Tonie van der Merwe, hoped to reach a new market. In step with 1970s black popular culture, the film was indebted to Blaxploitation cinema and was importantly, one of the first with an all-black cast that included stars like Gampu and Abigail Kubeka. Not only did Joe Bullet offer a thrilling new hero to audiences, but also a wholly different vision of black life than known at the time. This was an image of agency, aspiration and power, at odds with the realities of most non-white South Africans under apartheid. Despite having no overt oppositional politic, the film was quickly banned and remained unseen for decades.
Recently restored, Joe Bullet is a compelling, complex piece of South African cinema history and one which deserves a contemporary reappraisal.
by Louis de Witt
with Ken Gampu, Abigail Kubeka, Jimmy Sabe, Cocky "Two Bull" Tlholthalemaje, Sidney Charma, Dan Poho, Sol Rachilo, Matthew Molete, Richard Khumalo, Henry Siduma
South Africa 1971 85’

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