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by Roger Young / 03.04.2010

To be mean about The Race-ist for it’s c-grade nature is little like making fun of your inbred cousins for drooling at family lunch; it announces it’s intentions clearly on the poster, there is no point in being surprised about it carrying them out. For what it is (a very cheaply made film about the drag racing scene in Joburg’s “South”) it’s not that terrible; mostly because it’s well aware of its audience and it sets out to please them. The fact that the stunts are amateur and the humour hardly a notch above Schuster wont really matter to its primary audience, zef okes of all races who like trashy women, pounding house music, c-list celebrities and custom cars. I could never say that The Race-ist is a good film, but it is an incredibly honest one.

It may be awash with c-grade celebrities, bad dialogue and stereotypes, but it’s refreshing that it exists. Part of a new breed of independent films (Discreet, Intonga, Crime, and I Now Pronounce You Black and White being some of the others) that are produced with non-traditional funding, The Race-ist is full of first time filmmaker errors that speak of an enthusiasm and bravery that is sorely lacking in more seriously funded films being produced at the moment. Let me not deceive you though, The Race-ist is very badly cobbled together from the pieces of other films but regardless of that, it has it’s own distinct personality, it’s plot elements may be derivative but it’s heart is not.

If you’re not into drag racing, house music and unfresh zef I wouldn’t recommend going to see The Race-ist. It’s the story of a coloured kid, Lukas who wants to be drag racer like his white father, Solly, who did a runner years ago, he hooks up with a couple of crazy bio chemists with a secret formula for a new fuel and a hot chick who trains him to drive. Hi-jinks and montages ensue as our hero races toward the final showdown with his father.

The cast is sprinkled with DJ Fresh and Kurt Darren, indicating just what kind of soundtrack you’re in for. But why can’t steroid junkies from Boksburg have a movie for their kind, replete with trashy girls, sponsored Ed Hardy t-shirts (worn exclusively by the dumb henchman played by Bad Brad from Survivor (or was it Idols, I can’t remember) in a masterpiece of target marketing, and budget custom cars? Well, here’s the point, with the equipment available, some clever product placement (although the camera does linger a bit too long on some brands when panning over the cars, but I guess that’s how drag racing is financed, so it is kind honest) and a couple of mates as extra’s, anyone can now make a movie. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be good.

The Race-ist suffers mostly because filmmaker Andrew Wilmot knows the story needs plot points, he just doesn’t know what to do once he gets to them. The film unfolds in a simplistic manner: and now it’s time for a scene where Lukas gets angry, and now it’s time for a scene where Ian Roberts says something enigmatic and now it’s time for a scene where Lukas saves the day. If only Wilmot had fleshed these scenes out a little more with his actors, he might have needed less exposition and got more empathy. Throughout The Race-ist the characters make some pretty big decisions without any sort of indication of motivation or foreshadowing.

Exposition is a problem for lead “villain” Solly, in that his voiceover is either about establishing a secondary character or explaining one of his really odd decisions, but without ever really getting to the root of his schizophrenic behavior. Most characters, in fact, act according to some strange code lifted from a million Clint Eastwood films. There are trailing plot points all over the place, the opening scene with Vince getting chased by a hundred metro police for speeding on the M1 is never really contextualized, that the bio chemists want to go open source is also left mysteriously hanging, and where exactly did DJ Fresh get that small bomb?

The budget restrictions create a certain honesty. That the hot girls are not that hot (the instances of cleavage and sex appeal is on a PG level) and the cars are not that fancy is probably the best part of the film, it gives it its heart. This is not a film about some out of touch impossible dream; it’s a film about people who scrape money together to indulge in their fantasies, like the filmmakers themselves, the characters in the film succeed, the filmmakers do not.

In the end The Race-ist is let down by it’s budget, it’s the kind of film where you can forgive anything if there is a set piece as a climax. But the principle problem is that the stunts and car chases are so much smoke and mirrors, most of the car races are close-ups on tires, faces with the commentators explaining what we should be seeing, this kind of obvious budget saving cuts the wind out of the climax entirely.

As amateurishly plotted, as over acted, as garish, as full of comedy stereotypes (Strini Pillai I’m looking at you) as bad as The Race-ist is, it is exactly the kind of film that we need in South Africa now, a film rooted in the present that sets out to entertain, refreshingly free of hand wringing scenes dealing with past injustices (the title refers to a throwaway joke and is more a marketing ploy than anything else, race is not an issue in this film). The Race-ist does not deliver on the action (nor on the sex, there is distinctly not enough flesh for this kind of film), but it will entertain a specific market, and it was made cheaply enough to recoup enough of it’s money to enable Wilmot to try again, and with the kind of enthusiasm for film making that The Race-ist displays, he will hopefully do better next time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not recommending that you go see The Race-ist, I am merely telling you that because it exists, it means that there is a kind of hope for a new film making culture in South Africa.

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