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Finally: Rich, multifaceted coloured experiences on screen

Showmax original Skemerdans' portrayal of coloured people in Cape Town is authentic and transcends the Cape Flats, gangsterism and other callous stereotypes which have long dominated the film industry
Thu, Apr 29, 2021

Representation is a tough thing to explain. It is not enough to just see someone who looks like you onscreen if they don't resemble something that you recognise. Growing up, I devoured all the local soapies and what was presented to us was a myriad of stories set mostly around Johannesburg.

As any young person, I searched for myself in those stories, but as multicultural as South Africa is, I rarely found characters that I could relate to. Of course, I wanted to be as successful as Karabo Moroka and as bubbly as Paula van de Lecq, but they were as far removed from me as Brooke Logan.

With the exception of Fishy Fêshuns, most television programmes of the '90s and early '00s took place in Johannesburg and so the coloured characters that were represented were either from Johannesburg or were seen as displaced coloured people from the general 'Cape Flats' who had come to Johannesburg for a better life.

Those unfamiliar with Cape Town might think that the Cape Flats is just one big plateau where all the coloured people live, where gangsterism and violence is rife. And while that is a very real problem in certain areas, there is a wide community that ranges from different income brackets, religions and languages.

The Cape Flats is not one entity, and the stereotype that it is just a dangerous cesspit has seeped its way into how coloured people are represented on screen.

The thing is, there is gangsterism and violence in areas that are not part of the Cape Flats – there are coloured people who grew up in working- and middle-class suburbs that are not part of the Cape Flats. We are an extensive community which has often been shaved down to either the baser stereotypes or as a blank substitute for a white character.

In earlier South African soapies, many coloured characters could easily have been played by white actors because there was nothing about the characters that depicted their culture or background.

The problem lies in the fact that for too long, coloured writers were not given the opportunity to write for coloured characters. They weren't given spaces in writing rooms or opportunities to bring their own creations to fruition.

But that is changing, especially in telenovelas and soaps such as Arendsvlei and Suidooster. Even in limited and shorter series such as Trackers, when coloured characters are part of an ensemble, they seem more realistic and authentic.

This has culminated in Skemerdans, the new original from Showmax. The series centres around the Fortune family who own the Oasis nightclub and the drama that unfolds after the murder of the family patriarch, Glenn Fortune (Kevin Smith).

From the opening credits, you feel as if this is something different – it feels both quintessentially Cape Town and extremely unique.

Filmed mostly in Rylands, it shows an area of Cape Town that is rarely seen on screen – the middle-class coloured suburbs. While there is an inherent classism within the coloured community, the affluence and wealth of these areas are not without their own problems, and this type of representation has helped to demonstrate just how far-reaching and diverse the coloured community is.

The emergence of coloured writers and producers like Amy Jephta and Ephraim Gordon, the showrunners of Skemerdans, has meant that we are receiving a variety of stories and depth to characters that might've been entirely two-dimensional in previous years.

This means that coloured people can be the stars of big-budget series that deal with subjects that don't only centre around gangsterism.

Even more special is the fact that we are seeing the actors that we grew up watching on screen playing one-dimensional coloured characters, being able to depict characters with so much depth as well as being steeped in authentic coloured culture.

Seeing actors like Kevin Smith, Ilse Klink, Vinette Ebrahim and Brendon Daniels bringing to life this excellent piece of content feels like a form of retribution.

Klink, who plays Shireen Fortune in Skemerdans says: "There's definitely a shift towards recognition of who we are as a people. And we are writing the story so we can tell the stories from a point of truth and a point of experience."