Gangster’s Paradise – Jerusalema (2008)    1 Stars

“An unflinching look into the crime, corruption and the transgressions of those looking to survive in the most crime-infested district of Johannesburg.”

Gangster's Paradise - Jerusalema (2008)
Gangster’s Paradise – Jerusalema (2008)


Director: Ralph Ziman

Cast: Rapulana Seiphemo, Jeffrey Zekele, Ronnie Nyakale

Synopsis: A young hoodlum’s rise from a small-time criminal to a powerful crime entrepreneur during the turbulent years before and after the fall of apartheid.




While South African filmmaker Ralph Zilman’s Gangster’s Paradise – Jerusalema follows the over-familiar gangster formula of rise-and-fall, the means by which the film’s anti-hero, Lucky Kunene (Rapulana Seiphemo) climbs to the top of his criminal empire is at least original. Most modern movie gangsters build their lives of crime upon a foundation of drugs, prostitution and gambling, but Kunene finds a way of swindling landlords out of their properties with the support of the incumbents and without falling foul of the legal system.

The scam operated by Kunene and his childhood friend, Zakes (Ronnie Nyakale) sees them forming the Hillbrow People’s Housing Trust, through which, with the support of the tenants, they effectively hijack tenement buildings owned by slum landlords and hold the tenants’ rent in trust until improvements are made. If the landlord’s acquiesce to their demands, Kunene’s gang simply vandalise the properties again and continue to withhold payment to the landlord. As the law views this as a civil matter, the police refuse to get involved, and the cash-strapped landlords usually end up selling off the buildings at auction. Naturally, Hillbrow People’s Housing Trust is always the winning bidder at a vastly favourable price.

It’s the kind of sleazy con you have to begrudgingly admire in one respect, but this aspect of Gangster’s Paradise – Jerusalema is the only thing that sets it apart from the Warners gangster flicks of the 1930s. All of the genre clichés are present: the poverty-ridden childhood that gives rise to crime, the abortive attempt to escape, the last job that goes wrong, the doting mother with a bible in her hand. The film also invites our admiration of Kunene, painting him as something of a Robin Hood figure but steers clear of going into too much detail about his operation. For example, it’s difficult to see Kunene and his men being more benevolent landlords than those they have usurped, but we never see what kind of conditions the Trust’s tenants have to endure, or how they handle unrest once ownership passes into his hands. As an adult, we only see him commit acts of violence against other gangsters, and as a juvenile his crimes are largely portrayed in a humorous vein.

Zilman is to be congratulated, however, for producing a stylish-looking movie on a budget he described as less than that for some of the music videos he has directed. Apparently, money was so tight that the cameraman had to use a skateboard instead of a dolly. Kunene isn’t the scariest gangster you’re ever going to meet, but Seiphemo does a good job of making him a believable, fully-developed character. And, despite the lack of real depth or insight, and the familiarity of the storyline, Gangster Paradise – Jerusalema does at least entertain.

(Reviewed 23rd September 2015)

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