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.
South Africa 1971, 85 min
Louis de Witt
Cocky "Two Bull" Tlholthalemaje