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Lethal Weapon Meets Orwell in South Africa

By       Message Jon Jeter     Permalink
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In a half-lit Hollywood office, an anxious, middle-aged writer sits down on an armless love seat to pitch his project to a movie producer. It's been awhile since the writer has sold a script, and even longer since he's had a legitimate hit. But after pulling some strings, his agent managed to arrange this meeting with an up-and-coming studio executive who prides himself on his ability to excavate hidden gems.

"So what can I do you for?" the clean shaven executive asks glibly as he leans back comfortably in an overwrought wingback chair that resembles a leather gargoyle. He is fingering a diamond cuff link on his right sleeve.

The writer pounces: "I want to revive the Lethal Weapon franchise," he says repeating the line he has been practicing for two days now. He searches awkwardly for somewhere to rest his right arm and wonders if the producer is old enough to even remember the final days of the Cold War era, or just read about it in his freshman history class at Stanford.

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"Whoa," the executive cautions, "Mel Gibson is a tough sale these days."

"No, we'd go in a totally new direction for this," says the writer excitedly. "What I have in mind is the next generation of Lethal Weapon. Maybe that British guy from The Wire, Idris Elba, to take over for Danny Glover, and I was thinking Colin Farrell or Daniel Craig  in place of Mel Gibson.

His curiosity clearly piqued, the producer leans forward. "Please go on," he says with a nod of his head, imagining himself, as he always does, as the Alpha-male agent played by Jeremy Piven in Entourage.

"Well, for the first installment, I would remake Lethal Weapon 2, the one where apartheid South Africa played the villains. In this one, however, we will cut 23 years ahead to the present. The black liberation movement that vanquished apartheid is now the country's unquestioned ruling political party but here's the hook: they're just as corrupt and oppressive as the whites-only government they replaced."

"Wait," the producer says leaning forward his chair. "Isn't that Nelson Mandela's people? What is it?" he asks and begins snapping his fingers in that "it's on the tip-of-my-tongue" fashion. "The African, the African . . ."

"The African National Congress," the writer says confidently, having anticipated this moment. "It is the oldest and most storied indigenous liberation movement on the continent, and was heavily influenced by Marxist ideology in its liberation era. By cashing in their chips, so to speak, the ANC's betrayal of black and poor South Africans adds a kind of "Animal Farm" irony to the narrative."

"So we've got Lethal Weapon meets Orwell," the executive says in a tone that reflects both his amusement and dismissiveness. "I'm thinking the audience will have trouble making that leap. Apartheid was a kind of universal touchstone for irredeemable evil in the final days of the Cold War," he says drily, recalling almost word-for-word a lecture from his freshman history class at Stanford. "I just don't know if that dog will hunt."

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"He'll hunt all right," the writer responds as he crosses his arms assuredly, finally finding his game face and a comfortable resting place for his right elbow. "Mandela is 95 years old now. A younger, less venerable generation is in charge and there is a feeling that they've sold out to big business. Just last month police opened fire on striking black miners killing 34, drawing comparisons around the world to the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when white police officers fatally shot 69 black protesters in what became the seminal moment in the global anti-apartheid movement. And just like the famously recalcitrant P.W. Botha who headed up the apartheid regime in the 80s, South Africa's current president, Jacob Zuma, responds to criticism both at home and abroad by digging in his heels. First, the ANC charged the striking miners with the deaths of their coworkers. Under a torrent of criticism the government later dropped the charges but it's only stepped up its attacks, chasing striking miners with rubber bullets and ransacking their homes. "

"But one horrific, violent episode does not a movie villain make," the exec says, savoring the Ari Gold-like wittiness of his retort.

"Indeed," the writer says. "This has been building for some time. I mean, we're almost 20 years in, and the average black South African is worse off--certainly in a material sense--than before. A tiny black elite has emerged to join the whites in the corporate boardrooms and tony suburbs, on the golf courses and society pages. But 99 percent of all poor people in the country remain non-white, down all of 1 percent from its apartheid heyday. And most economists believe the real jobless rate today hovers at nearly 40 percent, which is higher than ever."

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Jon Jeter is a former Washington Post's bureau chief for Southern Africa and South America and a former producer for This American Life. He is also the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People. He lives in (more...)

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Lethal Weapon Meets Orwell in South Africa