Thematic Elements and Tone in The Gods Must Be Crazy and Dust Devil

February 1, 2019

by Michael Dunnings

The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), directed by Jamie Uys and Dust Devil (1992), directed by Richard Stanley, are two films that, while similar in certain themes and settings, differ dramatically in approach. The Gods Must Be Crazy takes a humorous tone in telling the story of how ancient tribal African culture blends with a modern African society heavily influenced by white western culture. Dust Devil exists on the polar opposite side of the spectrum, assuming a dark and ominous tone, as a demon stalks the desert of Namibia killing those who already seek to end their lives. Both films are framed by mythical, cultural, gender-related, racial, and socio-political contexts, and integrate those in disparate ways to reflect their directors’ visions.

A central theme of both The Gods Must Be Crazy and Dust Devil is the nexus of African mythology, culture, and politics. Uys taps into traditional African tribal culture to humorous effect with Xi and his belief that the Gods were responsible for sending his tribe an empty glass Coke bottle thrown from a plane. The film’s humor comes through the counterpoint between modern African society in Africa and traditional tribal culture that hasn’t yet been touched by modernity. The film uses tropes similar to those of Hollywood films in their treatment of Native Americans, featuring the uncultured ‘savage’ being completely out of place in a ‘civilized’ society. Uys mines this effect through Xi’s belief that everything he encounters related to modern society is of divine origin, starting with the glass Coke bottle he perceives as a gift from the Gods, and continuing with Steyn and Kate, whom he perceives as actual Gods, their jeep, a man in the desert, a sheepherder’s flock… The film also uses a David

Attenborough-like narrator who creates a documentary-style atmosphere for the viewers, using language that is subtly condescending and referring to Xi almost as a young child learning the basic stepping stones of life. Mythology intersects with the film’s historical context as well, since Xi’s goal is to rid his people of the ‘evil’ that came with the Coke bottle. That evil, and the greed, worldly possession and selfishness that come along with it, are things that didn’t exist before the arrival of the bottle. The bottle is an object of western society, a society that forcibly tried to rid Africa of the traditional beliefs and customs that Xi holds and lives by. Simultaneously, the capitalist government’s mission is to rid the country of its own ‘evil,’ embodied in the communist rebel leader Samuel Boga’s paramilitary group, who are introduced in a comical, almost slapstick attempt to assassinate the President. The central theme in The Gods Must Be Crazy, and the mythological ‘lesson’ behind it, is that modern society comes with a resident evil that can only be vanquished by marshalling pre-modern forces.

In Dust Devil mythology is a key theme as well, but this film takes a much more politicized viewpoint toward traditional, mythology-infused African culture. Both films are set in a Southern Africa consumed by Apartheid, which The Gods Must Be Crazy doesn’t acknowledge by making its mythical character an indigenous warrior. In Dust Devil, which unequivocally references Apartheid, the mythical character is a folkloric demon in the guise of a white frontiersman who wanders the desert looking for victims. The Dust Devil’s look and demeanor are influenced heavily by American Westerns, narratives of intrepid loners following their own path across the land. In this sense, Dust Devil blends mythology from both Africa and the American West, whereby the native peoples, whether they be Africans or Native Americans, are identified with the wild, untamed wilderness in which the cowboy is more or less intentionally the intruder. Part of the majesty and lore of the cowboy archetype is that he is a loner, someone who doesn’t fit in, exists on the outskirts and always keeps moving. As such, the Dust Devil is not necessarily a malevolent being purposely intruding, but rather a creature driven by his very nature, who must always keep moving from place to place, never sedentary. Even in the film’s climax this theme

follows suit, as the demon keeps moving from host to host and ‘becomes’ Wendy when she kills its previous host, then pursues the same path on the hunt for its next victim. There is another level of mythology in Dust Devil that is prominent in the western, namely leaving society for a primitive arena, which the film projects onto the primal African landscape. Unlike The Gods Must Be Crazy, where we follow ‘primitive’ society discovering and mingling with modern society, Dust Devil proffers a reverse narrative dynamic. In investigating the murders, Sgt. Ben Mukurob is forced to slowly accept the word of Joe Niemand, a traditional medicine man of South Africa, or Sangoma. Despite modern investigative technologies and sciences, Niemand attempts to convince Mukurob that in order to solve the case, he needs to think in terms of more traditional and supernatural means, which Mukurob shows considerable disdain for, yet reluctantly adopts as he ventures away from society and into a wilder, more ancient world determined by myth and legend.

Both films play out gender and racial tropes in their character development. The Gods Must Be Crazy, as a comedy, takes a humorous approach to the relationship between man and woman, white and black. The film depicts Kate Thompson as the typical western woman from the big city, who is totally out of her element in the Kalahari, and dressed as if she were walking down a Johannesburg street. Meanwhile, her guide, Andrew Steyn, is a charming, intelligent, Michael Caine-esque outdoorsman who is routinely reduced to a bumbling idiot in her presence. This is a common trope of the smart man looking buffoonish in front of a woman who is socially considered to be ‘out of his league’. The film interweaves this trope with another gender trope, namely the clueless damsel and the capable man in a relationship that despite Steyn’s inability to seem un-inept in her presence, still draws on a Tarzan and Jane dynamic. Whether Steyn tries to explain Xi’s behavior to Kate when she is startled by the tribesman, or attempts to convince her that he wasn’t trying to be sexual with her by describing how Rhinoceros stamp out fires, Kate always seems to be at the mercy of Steyn’s competence, which is ironic since Kate herself is a teacher. However, the film partially turns this irony on its head. Its climax empowers Kate to some degree, as she and her schoolchildren are rescued by Steyn, Xi, and Mpudi. Although with the support of Steyn’s ingenuity, Kate takes some initiative and defends both herself and the children from Samuel Boga’s soldiers.

In Dust Devil, the demon occupies a position of power over the female protagonist that incorporates a less obvious savior’s role. In Uys’ comedy, Steyn acts as the seasoned scientist who has thousands of hours of experience in the wilderness, and accordingly protects the classroom teacher who seems completely out of place. The Dust Devil represents the wilderness much more directly, as an omnipotent creature who masters the winds and scours the desert in search of people who seek to end their own life. He is not an ‘evil’ force, but rather a force beyond morality, a force of nature, or of the landscape he holds dominion over. Nature, capable of great beauty and great horror, is never malevolent and moves forward in a cyclical rather than linear pattern. Similarly, the Dust Devil does what he does because he has to, following and imposing a spiral motion and looping temporality. He acts as the savior of the female protagonist Wendy, who almost attempts to kill herself, by extending her a lifeline. Contrary to the chaste, ‘innocent’ atmosphere of The Gods Must Be Crazy, which has the emasculated Steyn apologize for his seeming advances in absurd, farcical circumstances, Dust Devil adds a strong sexual component to the power dynamic between the romantic leads, with the stereotypical masculine male trying to kill Wendy after they’ve had sex, a fate she narrowly escapes by striking him in the head. In the end, though, the film creates a unique and complex paradox of gender power (im)balance. On the one hand, it collapses the roles of savior and predator into an amalgam of male domination. As Wendy traverses the desert, the Dust Devil just watches, with the power to end her suffering whenever he wants. Yet the film’s climax also empowers the female lead beyond anything in The Gods Must Be Crazy. In Uys’ film, Kate is able to vanquish Samuel Boga’s troops, but in a passive, nonviolent way by carrying out bumbling Steyn’s ideas, with the help of Xi. In Dust Devil, Wendy is ultimately the one who pulls the trigger, blows her male aggressor’s head off and becomes the Dust Devil herself.

Race is also a highly significant factor in the narrative development of the two films. In The Gods Must Be Crazy this is evident in Steyn and Mpudi’s relationship with Xi. Although Mpudi offers more of a respectable insight into Xi and his culture, the film consistently depicts Steyn and Mpudi’s interactions with Xi as the dynamic between a couple of adults and a child. The two films have in common that they both use two white romantic leads with minor characters played by African actors. In The Gods Must Be Crazy, Xi, although the catalyst of the story, plays a minor role when around characters such as Steyn and Kate, and in comical scenes appears more frequently and obviously as the butt of the joke when compared to Steyn, Kate, and even Mpudi. In the film’s climactic confrontation with Samuel Boga and his men, Xi at first takes the initiative, shooting the soldiers with poison-infused arrows, but eventually he plays second fiddle to Steyn and Kate as he struggles with Steyn’s jeep, driving it waywardly all over the plains. One of the main problems with the film is that while the story begins with Xi in a predominant role, showcasing a kind of traditional African culture rarely seen on film, his story of attempting to rid his camp of the evil Gods’ Coke bottle becomes increasingly secondary to Steyn and Kate’s romance plot. Furthermore, the real-life historical context of Apartheid never surfaces in the film’s configuration of somewhat cartoonishly treated personalities like Steyn and Kate, Xi and Samuel Boga.

Dust Devil also never places the black characters Mukurob and Niemand in leading (romantic) roles, which are reserved for the Dust Devil and Wendy. However, in Dust Devil, Mukurob’s story is told much more in depth and more fully developed as a tale of redemption, even if it comes to a disappointing conclusion with his death at the hands of the Dust Devil. Moreover, the context of Apartheid is raw and overwhelming in Dust Devil, and presented primarily from Mukurob’s perspective. The relationship between the Dust Devil and Wendy remains solely myth- and gender-based, devoid of any racial component. Mukurob’s struggles and traumas, though, stem from a past defined by racial inequality. This is particularly evident in his scenes with Wendy’s former boyfriend, Mark Robinson, who is savagely beaten at the black bar where he goes in search of Wendy and incurs the rightful suspicion of the patrons who question and oppose his allegiances in South Africa. When he insists to Mukurob that helicopters be brought in to search for Wendy, Mukurob scoffs at this notion and questions whether any such effort and means would be brought forth to search for his wife, an obvious reference to white privilege. This version of racial prejudice is also prevalent in the United States, where it has been called the ‘Missing White Female’ phenomenon, meaning that missing white women receive more attention and effort toward their recovery and rescue than women of other races. Mukurob is a complex character in that his attitude and mindset toward his fellow Africans is ambivalent. On the one hand, he chastises two of his troopers for viciously beating an unarmed black suspect for information. On the other hand, his disdain for Joe Niemand’s invocations of myth and legend can be perceived as a ‘westernization’ of African culture. This skepticism gets Mukurob nowhere, however. It is only when he decides to listen to the Sangoma that he begins to make any progress in the case.

The Gods Must Be Crazy and Dust Devil are films set in similar locations, which treat racial, gender-related, political, social, mythological, and cultural elements in very different ways. In its broadly humorous approach, The Gods Must Be Crazy fails to elevate Xi to an actual protagonist beyond the level of anthropological curiosity or comic relief. Dust Devil is a darkly ominous, violent horror film that mimics a Hollywood western and puts the eruption of violent, angry emotions into a clear perspective of racial and political divide. In this respect, the film bears a certain similarity to Candyman (1992), another racially charged horror film that came out the same year and focuses on the plight of black residents in the projects of Chicago. While still eventually reducing the agency of its African characters, Dust Devil does a much greater job than The Gods Must Be Crazy in keeping their stories crucially intertwined with the main narrative until the climax, and implementing an emancipatory reversal of gender empowerment in the process.

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