Red Feather of Death might seem like a sort of European rip-off of Thunderheart, the 1992 film starring Val Kilmer as a part-Native American FBI agent who, based on his racial heritage, is assigned to investigate a murder on a reservation.
Indeed, there are some strong similarities between the two films. Both are murder mysteries that take place within the contexts of oppressed minorities embedded in a history of Western conquest. Political and cultural issues are also delved into, with mixed success.
Here, Heinz Hoenig stars as Sam, a man who is in South Africa to attend the wedding of a friend. Unfortunately, his friend’s fiancé is suddenly found dead, and Sam’s friend is implicated in her murder. After some digging, Sam finds out that the death was tied to a nearby Zulu tribal community. The deceased woman had found out about a poaching operation (carried out by the tribe members under a mixture of duress and collusion) and was planning to expose it. The definitive clue is the titular red feather that was sent to her shortly before her death: it turns out that the object is traditionally sent as a warning among Zulus. Of course, Sam finds out that the authorities are also involved in the poaching ring, and that the case also involves an animal rights activist.
Sam’s partner in all this is a Zulu woman named Malindi, played by Nambitha Mpulwana. Mpulwana gives a very capable, poised performance, and is a charismatic screen presence. She is able to make the most of a role that, sadly, sometimes devolves into “clichéd ethnic sidekick” territory. It is to be hoped that this actress gets bigger, better roles in the future.
Like Thunderheart, this film aims to be more than a plain murder mystery. It asks some very difficult questions. To what extent are the Zulus to blame for targeting endangered animals, particularly since it is the colonial legacy that has put them into such a miserable situation that their desperation turns them into poachers? When is it time to stop pinpointing colonial history or structures—or any “system” for that matter—and start putting the responsibility on individuals, or take on some responsibility yourself? However, also like Thunderheart, its approach towards these “big issues” is not an unequivocal success. Its “sensitivity” towards the minority in question sometimes feels paternalistic or patronizing, particularly in some moments that seem to fixate on African “exoticness. Malindi herself, though a strong and intelligent character, sometimes comes off as the stereotypical Sexy Native Woman.
Still, all these issues tend to dog even the best, most well-thought out films that dare to tackle the post-colonial legacy. Even the most well-intentioned and sensitive accounts made for and by Westerners are likely to give cause for complaint, simply because they are made from an outsider’s perspective. This is by no means an assertion that such films are ideologically suspect or should not be made at all. The best examples are entertaining, education, and multi-sided explorations of these issues.
Red Feather of Death may not necessarily be a great film, but the acting and overall craftsmanship are of good quality, and the movie can be fodder for interesting discussions about the environmental, racial, and historical issues of South Africa and its neighbors.
Director: Hartmut Griesmayr
Cast: Heinz Hoenig, Hansa Czypionka, Walter Kreye, Nambitha Mpumlwana