‘My films are for the people, not for the critics,” said Leon Schuster, relaxing on a sofa in his living room in his comfortable suburban house in Johannesburg. “Critics only write for other critics.”
Mad Buddies, released last Friday, is guaranteed to make the tills ring and audiences roar with laughter. It has already made the critics shudder. “One said I should be shot,” Schuster said. And even though the critic hastened to add, “shot with a camera”, Schuster still found the comment offensive.
Whereas some find the “toilet” humour and slapstick comedy irritating, others consider him racist.
Tsepo wa Mamatu, a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of dramatic arts, recently published a monograph titled “Laughing at Blackness: Leon Schuster and the Colonising Mind”. Writing in the Sowetan in 2009, Mamatu urged black viewers to “watch films actively” and guard against the likes of Schuster who make fun of “blackness” for commercial ends.
“If I was a racist, then my movies would definitely not appeal to black people,” said Schuster in response to the claims of racism. He put the race demographic split of his audience at 70% black, 30% white.
His films have broken records at the South African box office. Mr Bones, released in 2001, was the highest-grossing South African film of all time, a record surpassed only in 2008 by Mr Bones 2.
A pre-screening of Mad Buddies at the Maponya Mall in Soweto on June 20 and subsequent weekend screenings packed the cinema to capacity. “The thing about Schuster,” said Dudu More, a loyal Schuster fan who was excited to see his latest offering, “is that he understands black culture.”
Schuster said he obtained much of his material by spending time with his long-time friend and collaborator, Alfred Ntombela. He has consciously tried to capture the black audience since realising its strength after the success of There’s a Zulu on My Stoep in 1993, in which he starred alongside the late John Matshikiza. It was the first mainstream South African tale of racial unification.
But Schuster considers himself politically ambivalent and a prankster at heart. “I’ve been an entertainer since I was in primary school. I used to prank everybody, even the ice-cream guy in his wagon.”
After graduating from the University of the Free State, he spent two unsuccessful years as a school-teacher. “I never made it as a teacher. I was trying to entertain the kids 90% of the time and they never took me seriously.”
Overcoming the racial divide
Schuster believes the main challenge we face as a society is to overcome the racial divide. And he is most proud of observations that people from all race groups find the same jokes amusing. “It is not like there are bursts of laughter from whites, coloureds … everyone laughs together,” he said.
Schuster reminds us that the victims of his pranks have been both white and black. His pet straight man, the Afrikaner traffic cop, remains an endearing hangover from his earlier work. And as a self-proclaimed “risk-taker”, he has not earned much goodwill during filming. “On my tombstone,” he said, “I’m going to write: ‘Leon couldn’t take the last klap.’”
After being punched unconscious during Oh Schucks … I’m Gatvol (2004), he decided to shoot his next candid camera-style film, Schuks Tshabalala’s Survival Guide to South Africa (2010) in Cape Town, because people there were considered less prone to violence.
Another scene he recalls with terror is one in Panic Mechanic (1995), in which he set up a fake tollbooth in Ventersdorp, a town he calls “the heart of rightwingers”. “These boere had to pay this black security guard. The stuff I cut out was guys with AK-47s pointed at me saying: ‘We’re going to kill you.’
“It’s a pity that slapstick has almost become like a swear word. Because if you go back to the silent era, to Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy … those guys never spoke, they just did stuff that was visually brilliant.”
And he thinks the audiences prefer it. “I’ve watched my movies with audiences. That’s where they laugh the most.”
Schuster is now bound for the international market after the distribution rights to Mad Buddies were bought by Walt Disney. Its visual appeal, he hopes, will make it travel well.
In the bucks
1989: Oh Schucks It’s Schuster, R6.5-million
1991: Sweet n Short, R7.8-million
1993: There’s a Zulu on My Stoep, R9.8-million
1999: Millennium Menace, R8.5-million
2001: Mr Bones, R33-million
2004: Oh Schucks … I’m Gatvol, R35-million
2005: Mama Jack, R26-million
2008: Mr Bones 2: Back from the Past, R35-million
2010: Schuks Tshabalala’s Survival Guide to South Africa, R38-million