There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The ebullient yet impassioned music of Zimbabwean protest singer Thomas Mapfumo is heard in Jit, but Mapfumo is anything but the guiding spirit of this film, which is all fizz and no kick. A blithe low-budget comedy with nothing more on its mind than winning an attractive wife for its well-meaning hero, Jit depends heavily on a “jit-jive” soundtrack (performed by the Bhundu Boys, Ilanga, and many other Zimbabwean musicians) for its effervescence. Like a sunny, Southern Hemisphere version of ’50s and ’60s American and British rock-music comedies, Jit cuts to a shot of the bandstand every time its underpowered plot line sputters.
That’s not a particularly awkward strategy, since writer/director Michael Raeburn, who worked on the BBC’s Under African Skies Afropop series, has a feel for the music and cast a leading Zimbabwean recording star, Oliver Mtukudzi, as the uncle of his protagonist. Called “UK” by his friends because he’s “going to go far,” Jit‘s hero (Dominic Makuvachuma) has recently arrived from the countryside to make his fortune in the big city, where he lives with his uncle Oliver (Mtukudzi). UK didn’t make the trip alone; he was accompanied by his jukwa (Winnie Ndemera), an ancestral spirit who insists that he send more money home to his family but who can be appeased with beer. The jukwa, who appears to UK (and no one else) as an old woman, is mischievous and demanding, less a patron saint than a pain in the ass. (Although she once saves UK by appearing to some attackers as a snake, thus explaining the rattling sound that presages her appearances.)
Because UK doesn’t follow her instructions, the jukwa sabotages his attempts to make a living, which range from delivering baked goods by bicycle (he tosses the product into yards as if it were the daily newspaper) to working in a garage. The jukwa’s interference doesn’t much matter, though, until UK is tossed out of a communal cab while trying to defend the beautiful Sofi (Sibongile Nene), who was being harassed by a fellow passenger. Sprawled on the asphalt, UK woozily wakes up to see Sofi looking down at him and decides he must marry her.
When her father specifies an expensive Philips stereo system plus $500 as the “bride price,” UK’s inability to make money suddenly becomes a crisis. He devises a scheme to distract the jukwa and undertakes several new jobs, while refusing to be intimidated by Sofi’s thuggish boyfriend, Johnson (Farai Sevenzo), who travels with an entourage of toughs and drives a car bearing a “trainee millionaire” bumper sticker. Even Johnson’s attempt to frame his rival proves no impediment to UK’s newfound hunger for cash.
The director here merrily conflating the free market with true romance—and throwing in a woman who seems to have no choice in the matter—is a Euro-Zimbabwean ex-radical banned from the country in its Rhodesia days for having made the pro-violent-revolution Rhodesia Countdown. (The production of Jit was complicated, Raeburn notes, because he is still denied entry to South Africa.) A little of the old subversive spirit might have benefited this project: The director’s palpable affection for the film’s people, milieu, and music seems to have rose-colored his view of post-colonial Zimbabwean society.
Explaining the rushed, cash-strapped circumstances under which it was made, Raeburn writes that “Jit would have to be another The Harder They Come—cheap and cheerful.” It is both, and neither the film’s ragged technique nor high spirits are a problem. Still, Jit‘s sunny slapstick and silly fast-motion sequences didn’t necessarily preclude a deeper critique of Zimbabwean society. As clean and childlike as UK and Sofi’s first date, a motorcycle trip to an amusement park for a ride on a water slide, the film never aspires to be anything more than ingratiating. Raeburn says that none other than Richard Lester encouraged him to continue making movies in Africa, but Jit is more in the tradition of Hold On, the long-since-forgotten Herman’s Hermits vehicle, than of A Hard Day’s Night.