‘Yesterday’ movie: Fantastic central performance in South African AIDS drama
To date, nowhere has the AIDS pandemic been felt more strongly than in Sub-Saharan Africa, home to approximately 16 percent of the world’s population and 70 percent of the planet’s estimated 35 million AIDS cases. In the past thirty years, more than 20 million Sub-Saharan Africans have died from complications of the disease. Even today, drug cocktails that are relatively accessible in other parts of the globe are still beyond the means of the vast majority of Africans. Writer-director Darrell Roodt’s South African drama Yesterday is set in this catastrophic scenario.
The film depicts the effects of AIDS in the life of a young Zulu woman who contracts HIV from her husband. Although Roodt’s narrative maintains its focus on the plight of one particular individual, the (for non-Zulus) quirkily named Yesterday represents millions of other women, men, and children who are now suffering or who have perished from the effects of HIV in that part of the world.
Plight of the poor
Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo), an illiterate woman living in a remote Zulu village, ekes out a living tilling the soil. So named because her father believed that things had been better in the past, Yesterday’s day-to-day existence consists of a series of back-breaking chores, including walking to the nearest hospital, located several kilometers away, to find out why she has been feeling so tired lately.
When Yesterday discovers she has contracted HIV from her husband, John (Kenneth Kambule), 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 he shows up at the Zulu village, considerably weakened.
It’s up to Yesterday to care for John, for their young daughter, Beauty (Lihle Mvelase), and for herself. Her health may be failing, but she makes up her mind not to succumb to the disease until her daughter starts going to school to get the education 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, director-screenwriter Darrell Roodt and cinematographer Michael Brierley make sure we are transported from our movie seats to Zululand, as Brierley’s lenses beautifully capture the region’s magnificent vistas. Surrounded by enormous expanses of dry grassland and hillsides, the area around Yesterday’s small village is reminiscent in scope to the American West’s panoramic views as portrayed in the films of John Ford.
Additionally, Roodt’s delicate, compassionate touch helps to humanize the film’s characters, among them the doctor who first diagnoses Yesterday’s illness or a kind-hearted teacher at the Zulu village. (They are movingly played by Camilla Walker and Harriet Lehabe, respectively). Even Yesterday’s husband, though initially seen as the villain of the piece, is transformed into a pitiful figure, a man unable to come to terms with his deteriorating health and physical weakness.
Leleti Khumalo: Much more than an AIDS ‘victim’
As for Yesterday, far from being a mere victim, she is a woman who draws strength from despair. As a result of Yesterday’s refusal to feel sorry for herself, her suffering becomes all the more heartbreaking.
Such mixture of resilience and simplicity is brought to life by Yesterday‘s greatest asset: Leleti Khumalo, a sensitive, intuitive actress who had previously worked for Roodt in both Sarafina! (1992) and Cry the Beloved Country (1995). Khumalo effortlessly carries Yesterday on her shoulders while delivering one of the best performances of 2004 – or of any other year.
HIV/AIDS prevalence in Sub-Saharan Africa
 According to UNICEF, there were an estimated 35 million people living with HIV around the world in 2013. Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for “the vast majority of people living with AIDS, new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths.”
As per the World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa is “home to 70% of all new HIV infections.”
Dir./Scr.: Darrell Roodt.
Cast: Leleti Khumalo. Lihle Mvelase. Kenneth Kambule. Harriet Lehabe. Camilla Walker.
‘AIDS movies’ and the Academy Awards
Whether as a focal plot element or an ancillary one, HIV/AIDS has been a relatively rare topic when it comes to Academy Award-nominated narrative films. Besides Darrell Roodt’s Yesterday, the most notable examples – shortlisted in any of the Oscars’ categories – are:
- Longtime Companion (1990).
Director: Norman René.
Screenplay: Craig Lucas.
Cast: Campbell Scott. Mary-Louise Parker. Patrick Cassidy. Dermot Mulroney. John Dossett. Mark Lamos. Michael Schoeffling. Brian Cousins. Dan Butler. Robert Joy. Tony Shalhoub. Stephen Caffrey.
- Philadelphia (1993).
Director: Jonathan Demme.
Screenplay: Ron Nyswaner.
Cast: Tom Hanks. Denzel Washington. Antonio Banderas. Joanne Woodward. Jason Robards. Roberta Maxwell. Anna Deavere Smith. Chandra Wilson. Bradley Whitford. Mary Steenburgen. Charles Napier. Roger Corman.
- All About My Mother / Todo sobre mi madre (1999).
Dir. / Scr.: Pedro Almodóvar.
Cast: Cecilia Roth. Marisa Paredes. Penélope Cruz. Antonia San Juan. Candela Peña. Rosa Maria Sardà. Fernando Fernán Gómez. Eloy Azorín. Carlos Lozano. Fernando Guillén.
- Precious (2009).
Director: Lee Daniels.
Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher.
Cast: Gabourey Sidibe. Mo’Nique. Paula Patton. Mariah Carey. Lenny Kravitz. Sherri Shepherd. Stephanie Andujar.
- Dallas Buyers Club (2013).
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée.
Screenplay: Craig Borten. Melisa Wallack.
Cast: Matthew McConaughey. Jared Leto. Jennifer Garner. Denis O’Hare. Dallas Roberts. Michael O’Neill. Steve Zahn. Griffin Dunne. Kevin Rankin.
Yesterday cast info via the IMDb.
Images of Lihle Mvelase, Kenneth Kambule, and Leleti Khumalo in Yesterday movie: HBO Films.