Sarafina!

Movie review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Sarafina! Movie Poster Image
Sobering musical about apartheid includes brutal violence.
  • PG-13
  • 1992
  • 117 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Asks rather than answers whether violence is justified when you're pushed as far as those under the apartheid regime. You want to live in peace, but you can't stand by when your friends are being killed around you. If you don't learn from the past, all you have is an endless repetition of today without any future. The real heroes are the ones who endure.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Sarafina is responsible, dreams of a bright future, and values education. She gets caught up in turbulent events and emotions, eventually disavowing violence as a solution. Teacher Miss Masembuko keeps her students engaged, provides creative outlets for them, and teaches what the kids need to know, even under threat from government officials to stick to the approved curriculum.

Violence

Systemic torture described in the first person while looking directly into the camera. Torture using electrocution shown. Frequent depictions of police brutality against protestors, usually whipping or beating with batons that resemble riding crops. Several beatings with kicking and punching. Two or three gunshots with spurting blood. Several bloody injuries shown. Scenes of rioting, throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks, police firing tear gas. A mob beats a man, pours gas on him, and sets him on fire; his body is engulfed in flames. A local constable sexually harasses teen girls walking to school.

Sex
Language

"S--t," "bulls--t," "arsing around," and "piss."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Evil interrogator smokes. Brief mention of beer, drunken uncle. Gin, brandy, and rum mentioned in a fantasy sequence.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Sarafina! is a sobering, dramatic story based on a play about teens struggling against apartheid. It includes a few musical numbers but isn't the right choice if you're looking for light entertainment. Strong, frequent violence shows systemic brutality and includes beating, whipping, and kicking. A couple of murders show gunshot wounds spurting blood, and bloody and bruised injuries are shown. Strong language is infrequent but includes a few instances of "s--t." Some colloquial dialogue can be hard to follow until you get used to the accent. The film poses the question of whether violence is justified when you've been pushed too far. Ultimately it leans against violence, but it falls short of clearly stating that it's never justified.

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What's the story?

Sarafina (Leleti Khumalo) is a typical high school teen growing up in Soweto under the apartheid regime. She dreams of fame and hopes for a bright future. Many of her classmates and friends tire of chafing under the oppression and begin to demand change. After some students set fire to the school, military police arrive with guns to patrol the school and maintain order. Encouraged by their history teacher, Miss Masembuko (Whoopi Goldberg), the teens continue to speak out and actively protest. Sarafina struggles to find her own way forward in turbulent times, eventually getting caught up in events that change her, and the path she chooses, forever.

Is it any good?

SARAFINA! creates an odd juxtaposition between a harsh look at a brutal chapter in South Africa's history and musical numbers with Bollywood-style choreography. More deftly woven together, the two aspects of the movie could have created a more powerful and fuller picture of the people and events toward the end of apartheid. But the music and dance are essentially abandoned by the middle third and leave the viewer a bit perplexed by what exactly the filmmakers were trying to accomplish.

Structural flaws aside, Sarafina! tells a powerful story through the eyes of an engaging heroine today's teens will easily relate to thanks to Khumato's strong performance. Whoopi Goldberg no doubt brought a lot of Hollywood star power to the project at the time but now creates a slightly dated feel: It's not her strongest performance, and she doesn't quite pull off the accent. But it's a thought-provoking story worth telling and watching because it asks important questions teens will have to answer for themselves, about how to achieve social justice and about why oppression and rebellion are sadly as relevant today as they were when Nelson Mandela was still in jail.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the struggle for social justice at home and around the world. How are the histories of race relations in, for example, the U.S. and South Africa similar? What are the differences?

  • Is violence ever justified? What if you lived like the people in Soweto under threats and intimidation all the time? What if you or your loved ones were tortured? Why does Sarafina throw the rifle away?

  • Did you like the musical numbers in the movie? Why do you think they're included? What would the movie be like without them?

Movie details

Themes & Topics

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For kids who love musicals

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