Plot: Meet the “Five Fingers”: five childhood friends who swore they’d forever guard Marseilles — their South African shanty town. They would’ve stayed together if it weren’t for the actions of Tau, one of their own. Years later in adulthood, Tau emerges from prison and returns home to see Marseilles under villainous control. He must rally his disillusioned childhood friends to keep the promise they made all those years ago.
At its heart, the Western genre is about a time in American history when white men conquered the frontier. This is no different from colonialism.
Despite its romantic depictions, colonialism was, and is, a conquest of economic gain that harms indigenous peoples. Filmmakers Michael Matthews and Sean Drummond have made it clear that colonialism was on their minds whilst developing Five Fingers for Marseilles, and it shows.
An act of rebellion against oppressive apartheid-era white forces sets the film’s story in motion. The Five Fingers achieve victory against those who seek to keep them in their place. However, Tau takes things too far, and his actions shape both his fellow warriors and the town of Marseilles (named after the French city — more evidence of colonialism’s hold over South Africa) into something unrecognizable upon his return many years later.
Despite beating colonial forces, without stability and unity, the town morphs into something worse — something even more corrupt and lawless. This is something that no American Western can capture, because those films are primarily fantasies about, and for, the white man. Five Fingers for Marseilles does not depict an environment its heroes have conquered (like American Westerns), but rather one that has been taken from them.
When Tau returns to Marseilles, he finds his old friends bitter and cynical. They’ve either escaped to Marseilles’ outskirts or holed up in the lawless centre, desperately trying to avoid a new villain now claiming their home. Just because there is no oppressive white rule doesn’t mean African tyrants won’t take their place.
Here, we see a rather obvious metaphor for the state of certain parts of Africa. It works well within, and is quite appropriate for, the Western genre. When the colonists abandoned the lands they invaded, not keen to take responsibility for their actions, they left a power vacuum. Tau’s departure as a child led to the collapse of the Five Fingers, and another power vacuum. Whilst primarily a spot-on homage to the Western genre’s tropes, Five Fingers for Marseilles thus offers a brilliant examination of the whole new set of troubles that colonialism left in its collapse.
Ultimately, this is an incredibly hopeful film that insists change in Marseilles will rise from the rubble of various regimes’ collapses. First came the whites, next a warlord propped up by one of the Fingers, and then the Five Fingers themselves — arrogant enough to believe they were the sole guardians of Marseilles. Eventually though, the filmmakers and characters come to realize that, in order to end a vicious cycle, the power for a postcolonial future lies in the hands of the people.
Five Fingers offers an optimistic example of how change is possible. We need more stories like this in these dark times — times that show us that even in the nations that brutally colonized Africa, the shadow of colonialism still leaves an impact of misplaced, delusional arrogance.
Five Fingers for Marseilles–South Africa. Dialog in Xhosa and Southern Sotho. Directed by Michael Matthews. Starring Vuyo Dabula, Zethu Dlomo, Hamilton Dhlamini, Lizwi Vilakasi, Kenneth Nkosi.