- Yesterday (2004) review: As a young Zulu wife and mother who discovers that she’s HIV-positive, Leleti Khumalo delivers a heart-wrenching performance in Darrell Roodt’s AIDS drama.
- Yesterday synopsis: After Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo) discovers she has HIV, she travels from her remote Zululand village to Johannesburg to tell her husband (Kenneth Khambula), who, as it happens, had given her the virus. Her purpose now is to remain alive until her daughter, Beauty (Lihle Mvelase), is old enough to start school.
Yesterday (2004) review: Leleti Khumalo’s extraordinary performance makes Darrell Roodt’s Zululand-set AIDS drama a must
To date, nowhere has the AIDS pandemic been felt more strongly than in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the southernmost part of the subcontinent. Fittingly, South Africa – where more than 10 percent of the population is living with HIV – is the setting of screenwriter-director Darrell Roodt’s moving AIDS drama Yesterday.
That country’s submission for the 2004 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, Yesterday depicts the effects of HIV infection in the life of a young Zulu woman.
Although the narrative maintains its focus on the plight of that one individual, the (for non-Zulus) quirkily named title character represents millions of other women, men, and children who are now suffering from – or who have perished as a result of – HIV in that part of the world.
Yesterday plot: The plight of the poor
An illiterate woman living in a remote Zulu village, Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo) ekes out a living tilling the soil. So named because her father believed that things had been better in the past, her day-to-day existence consists of a series of back-breaking chores, including walking to the nearest hospital, located several kilometers away, to figure out why she has been feeling so tired.
When Yesterday discovers she has contracted HIV from her husband, John (Kenneth Kambula), a miner working in Johannesburg, she travels to the big city to tell him. At first, John violently refuses to accept the truth, but some time later – as his body is ravaged by AIDS – he returns to the Zulu village.
It’s now up to Yesterday to care for John; for their young daughter, Beauty (Lihle Mvelase); and for herself. In spite of her gradually failing health, she makes up her mind not to succumb to the disease until Beauty starts going to school to get the education – and perhaps the tools to survive on this planet – that she herself never had.
Transported to Zululand
Even if marred by a slow-moving second half and by sporadic incursions into melodrama, Yesterday has much to recommend it.
For starters, Darrell Roodt and cinematographer Michael Alan Brierley make sure that audiences are transported to Zululand, with Brierley’s lenses ably capturing the region’s magnificent vistas. Enveloped by enormous expanses of dry grassland and hillsides, the area around Yesterday’s small village is reminiscent in scope to the American West as seen in Winton C. Hoch- and Bert Glennon-shot John Ford titles like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, and The Searchers.
Additionally, Roodt’s tender, compassionate touch humanizes just about every one of his characters, including those with brief roles. Two examples: A Zulu village teacher and the doctor who first diagnoses Yesterday’s illness, affectingly played by Harriet Lehabe and Camilla Walker, respectively.
Even Yesterday’s husband, initially seen as the villain of the piece, is turned into a figure of pity, a once physically strong man unable to come to terms with his fast-deteriorating health.
Heart-wrenching Leleti Khumalo
As for Yesterday, she draws strength and determination from her condition – not that she has much of a choice, of course, having to take care not only of herself but of her family as well. This mixture of selfless resignation and resilience is brought to life by the film’s greatest asset: Leleti Khumalo.
Prior to this AIDS drama, Khumalo had collaborated with Roodt on the 1992 movie adaptation of the Soweto Uprising-set stage musical Sarafina!, which had earned her a Tony nomination four years earlier, and on the 1995 apartheid drama Cry, the Beloved Country, starring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris.
A sensitive, intuitive actress, Leleti Khumalo carries Yesterday on her shoulders while delivering one of the best, most moving performances of the year – or any other year.
Yesterday (2004) cast & crew
Direction & Screenplay: Darrell Roodt (as Darrell James Roodt).
Leleti Khumalo … Yesterday
Lihle Mvelase … Beauty
Kenneth Khambula … John Khumalo
Harriet Lenabe … Teacher
Camilla Walker … Doctor
Nandi Nyembe … Sangoma in Village
Jacob Makgoba … Man at Clinic
Tinah Mnumzana … Matron
Matthew Monika … Security Guard
Mnomi Moabi … Short Teacher
Cinematography: Michael Alan Brierley.
Film Editing: Avril Beukes.
Music: Madala Kunene.
Producers: Anant Singh and Helena Spring.
Production Design: Tiaan van Tonder.
Costume Design: Darion Hing.
Production Companies: Videovision Entertainment | Nelson Mandela Foundation | M-Net | HBO Films | Distant Horizon.
Distributor: HBO Films (United States).
Running Time: 90 min.
Country: South Africa.
“Yesterday (2004): AIDS Drama Stars Exceptional Leleti Khumalo” notes
HIV/AIDS prevalence in Sub-Saharan Africa
 As found in Robert Steinbrook’s New England Journal of Medicine article “The AIDS epidemic in 2004,” at the end of the previous year South Africa had more HIV cases than any other country: An estimated 5.3 million people (out of 48.6 million South Africans). The estimated total number of AIDS deaths reached 1.5 million.
In neighboring Botswana, the HIV prevalence rate among adults was 37.3 percent.
Update: According to UNICEF, in 2013 there were an estimated 35 million people living with HIV around the world. Home to about 16 percent of the world’s population, Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for “the vast majority of people living with AIDS, new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths.”
In 2012, UNAIDS estimated that Sub-Saharan Africa had 69 percent of the world’s population living with AIDS/HIV, with women accounting for 58 percent of that group.
Yesterday Academy Awards
Yesterday received one Academy Award nomination:
- Best Foreign Language Film.
Darrell Roodt’s AIDS drama became the first South African production shortlisted in that category.
More award nominations
Curiously, Yesterday was shortlisted for the Primetime Emmy Awards in the Best Made-for-Television Movie category.
It was also one of the contenders in the Independent Spirit Awards’ Best Foreign Film category.
Yesterday movie credits via the British Film Institute (BFI) Catalog website.
Lihle Mvelase and Leleti Khumalo Yesterday movie images: HBO Films.
“Yesterday (2004): AIDS Drama Stars Exceptional Leleti Khumalo” last updated in December 2023.