Slight spoilers ahead
I’ve just finished watching Blood & Water, the second big South African series to come out on Netflix after Queen Sono, which I reviewed previously here.
Set at the elite Parkhurst College in Cape Town, “Blood & Water” follows the exploits of 16-year-old Puleng Khumalo as she engineers her transfer to the school to investigate the 17-year-old cold case of the abducted-at-birth older sister she’s never met.”
There’s a lot to like about Blood & Water: the actors are model good-looking and mostly believable in their roles – the more seasoned older actors particularly so. The legendary Sello Maake Ka-Ncube was a joy to watch, playing a swaggering dad and maybe villain – making off with his son’s weed was HILARIOUS. The music was LIT and seeing our people in our country doing the things always makes me happy (Hello Nasty C in a delightful musical cameo!) The cultural nuances between different cultures are intelligently played. Wade teasing Puleng about “Nguni privilege” only for her to shoot back about his pronunciation of Brenda Jaxa’s surname was lovely.
But… there were some sketchy elements to the show that people have kind of ignored.
1. The erasure of Cape Town’s poor and working class
There’s a growing TV tradition in the West of teenage drama set in the high stakes world of upper-class, elite high schools: Gossip Girl, Elite, etc etc. So the South African version needed to be set in a likewise elite layer of society. But this Western trope comes with a LOT more baggage in a country with the widest level of inequality by several measures, and the series doesn’t carry that complexity well. The cast we follow around live in palatial homes and party like the rich and famous. Puleng, who plays a girl from a more middle-class family, is supposed to represent the other side of the class divide, with her bestie Zama hinted at being from an even rougher side of the tracks. Both girls, however, fit in effortlessly with the billionaire set at the fictional Parkhurst College, which seemed like a bit of stretch, but ok.
What really got me though was the complete absence of the working-class and poor from this version of Cape Town. I get that this series is about the 0.01% and their exploits and of course that’s legitimate and completely entertaining. But how are there no cleaners or gardeners in all these sparkling homes? Or sprawling school grounds? Cape Town is all bright, shining lights and 5-star beachfront hotels. The only class division that is shown is between the upper middle-class and middle-class.
It’s obviously not the series’ job to tell the story of Cape Town’s working-class and poor. But to not show them at all is a bit weird. Their erasure sits uncomfortably. It brings to mind the vacuousness of Bollywood at its worst: filmed at fancy European locations as some sort of elite fantasy version of Indian, where the streets are spotless and no beggars in sight.
We see glimpses of this entire other world when it serves the plot: Brenda Jaxa in prison. The Home Affairs official whom the kids bribe into imparting information. But the rest of the time, that 99% are unnecessarily invisible.
2. Puleng’s character
Puleng is either a secret sociopath, which would make for AN amazing twist, or her character is just really badly written. I fear it’s the latter.
I get there is a feminist point to be made in creating unlikeable female characters. Nigerian superstar author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes great delight in doing just that in Americanah, brilliantly too, as is her wont.
Adichie explains in one interview:
“I think we often expect female characters to be easily likeable, in a way we don’t expect male characters to be. Do we expect to like Nabokov’s or Roth’s characters? No. We expect them to be interesting. And I wanted Ifemelu to be that kind of character, where sometimes you want to smack her and sometimes you want to hold her close. Because I think that’s human.”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
But with Puleng’s character… I’m not sure that was the intention. She just comes across as more self-absorbed, rude and generally dismissive than most teenagers, even those under stress as she supposedly is.
It’s as if there was an unwritten rule in the script that she needs to cut off anyone opposite her in a scene just as they are trying to reach out with their own needs, and snap: “I have to go.” Before rushing off and leaving them downcast.
One loses track of the tit-for-tats between her and her maybe-sister Fikile towards the latter half of the season but some of her moves are simply vicious and poorly motivated.
I ended up having to force myself to finish the series because I found Puleng’s character so unlikeable and not particularly convincing – her violent outbursts, her constant and often unnecessary lying plus her basic disrespect for so many of the people around her. Her supposed bestie Zama doesn’t get so much as a sorry when she points out Puleng should have maybe told her that she KNEW Zama’s boyfriend was cheating. Instead, the scene is bizarrely played with Zama feeling sorry for Puleng, saying she must be going through a tough time given she was soooo uncharacteristically selfish in this instance. Huh? She’s basically this way in most relationships and scenes.
Her parents are burying themselves in debt to pay for her fees at Parkhurst College so she can do her little detective routine but this seems to make little impression on her. The season literally ends with her debating whether to use what she know nows to help her own father stay out of jail or not. What? She’s worried that TELLING THE TRUTH will inconvenience her new friend and boyfriend. Mind you, this is THE TRUTH that was used to justify her breaking every basic rule of decency. She is effortless, in ways that aren’t quite believable, at deceiving and manipulating those around her.
And no, it’s not done this way to make some great feminist point, as Adichie did, or to create some amazing plot twist, as one may have hoped. The character is unfortunately played this way to move the plot along. She alternates between cozying up to Fikile and lashing out at her in order to create the next reveal and the next and the next… till one loses count and the beats wear thin. It makes for an entirely unsatisfactory story arc where character development and motivation is sacrificed at the altar of by-the-book plotting. But hey, I guess that’s a problem in many a show. It’s just one that particularly irked me towards the end of this series, which started off so promisingly.
3. Wendy Dlamini being positioned as “too” woke
Wendy Dlamini’s punishment as a character is a mystery. She does some dodgy things as editor of the school paper, like materially changing Puleng’s article on Fikile. But she’s not punished for that – or for an offensive video she is framed for creating. In several scenes Dlamini is shown interrupting class, or hectoring her peers around the decolonisation of education and reclaiming of African narratives. She’s annoying, sure, and her peers make sure she knows they think so. But when Dlamini is pulled off editing the magazine, even after she’s cleared of creating the offensive video, because she’s been disruptive in class, that seriously did not sit well with me.
The only disruption we’re shown is her arguing for more African narratives and texts. WTF? How is this a problem? Why is the character punished for this? Mind you, her punishment is in no way a great statement on the real punishment meted out to individuals who make these kind of calls. In the world of the story, Dlamini’s treatment isn’t at all framed as what it is – silencing. Instead it is, once again, a device to move the story along, politics of it all be damned. Straight after this encounter, Dlamini heads to the press waiting outside the school to… create the NEXT reveal about Fikile! Yawn.
This while statues of oppressors are being torn down around the world, and BLM takes centre stage. Poor timing.
Other issues include a magically racially-integrated Cape Town and a bisexual character (updated to the more millennial “pansexual”) whose sexual preferences are seemingly put forward as a reason for his cheating and lying to his respective partners. As the kids would say, it’s problematic.
And before I end off, a review of the reviewers: My real passion in terms of reviews and analysis is of the media space – not films. And I have one last critique here, albeit of the response to the show, rather than the show itself.
The lack of meaningful South African cultural critique
South Africa’s critic space is close to flatlining – particularly for television. Hit international series receive in-depth, academic-quality reviews in publications like The Guardian, New York Times and more, with layered textual analysis. South African publications seem barely able to rouse themselves to do a repackaging of the series press release if you’re lucky. Gone are the days of film critics in South Africa of the likes of Shaun de Waal, Tymon Smith and Pearl Boshomane, as news rooms and their resources shrink. Reviews with the intellectual heft offered by publications like New Frame or writers like Kwanele Sosibo are few and far between.
Channel24 should be doing this stuff but doesn’t. I checked and they had a review here, by Graye Morkel. I haven’t read her work before and quite enjoyed how it was more in-depth than Channel24’s usual television takes. Though not fully developed, Morkel’s piece hinted at a lot of great thinking that, if given time and space, would make for a wonderful critique from a sorely-need South African perspective – and makes her a talent to watch. Thanks to her, I realised so much of the plot was drawn from the real-life case of Zephany Nurse – a tale so astonishing, it actually beats the fictionalised account in terms of drama in many ways. (The Nurse family have distanced themselves from the production but applauded it as a series. Neflix did not acknowledge the inspiration.)
I searched for Morkel’s other work on the site and found a depressing amount of clickbaity international content and “compilations” from press releases. Rather odd for the site’s “local entertainment editor”. You’d imagine, given the incredible popularity of Blood & Water among local audiences, Channel24 could have devoted Morkel’s talents to an episode-by-episode review with takes on the class, culture and contextual clues international reviewers would have missed. But then again, Channel24 is part of News24, which has had more hits than misses during the critical Covid-19 time in its rush to break news first.
Television reviews is a perfect gap in the market for bloggers to pick up on, but if there’s anything in SA’s blogosphere delivering the goods, I haven’t seen it – despite the rich pickings on SA television, quite apart from Netflix. There’s “TV with Thinus” but he focuses more on the business and industry. And there’s a host of “influencer” type content, especially around Blood & Water, which may as well be paid for by Netflix for all the critical thinking it offers. (If I’m wrong and there are such bloggers please let me know in the comments).
Like its bigger sister, Queen Sono, Blood & Water is glossy and beautiful, loved by many audiences but a bit of a disappointment with critics – though many gave both a pass for Africans telling African stories. Most critics feel let down that these stories play on traditional Western film tropes and genres in unimaginative and tired ways – and they’re not entirely wrong. Here’s an example of that sort of take here for Blood & Water and here for Queen Sono.
As I said: There’s a lot to like about Blood & Water. The final scenes with the swimming coach’s wife Riley, played by Shamilla Miller, blew me away. It was brief but packed more emotional punch than vast swathes of other parts of the story line.
I liked it quite a lot at first, and then not so much towards the end.
The international reviewers are right, it’s worth streaming just for the fresh cultural and location take on a popular genre. But perhaps bear the above in mind as you watch it.