- Yesterday (2004) movie review: As a young South African wife and mother who discovers that she’s HIV-positive, Leleti Khumalo delivers a heart-wrenching performance in Darrell Roodt’s Zululand-set AIDS drama.
- Yesterday was shortlisted in the Academy Awards‘ Best Foreign Language Film category.
Yesterday movie review: Leleti Khumalo’s extraordinary performance makes Zululand-set AIDS drama a must
To date, nowhere has the AIDS pandemic been felt more strongly than in Sub-Saharan Africa, home to about 16 percent of the world’s population and 70 percent of the planet’s estimated 35 million AIDS cases. The subcontinent is also the setting of screenwriter-director Darrell Roodt’s Yesterday, an AIDS drama that is South Africa’s submission for the 2004 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.
In the past 30 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 remain beyond the means of the vast majority of Africans.
Set in this catastrophic scenario, Roodt’s drama depicts the effects of AIDS in the life of a young Zulu woman who has contracted HIV from her husband. Although the 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 consequences of HIV in that part of the world.
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, 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 figure out why she has been feeling so tired.
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 – looking much more frail – shows up at the Zulu village.
It’s 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
Although marred by a slow-moving second half and by sporadic incursions into melodrama, Yesterday has much to recommend it.
For starters, the filmmaker and cinematographer Michael Alan Brierley make sure that audiences are transported to Zululand, as Brierley’s lenses ably 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 panoramic views of the American West as seen in Winton C. Hoch- and Bert Glennon-shot John Ford efforts like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande.
Additionally, Roodt’s tender, compassionate touch humanizes just about every one of his characters, including those with brief roles – for instance, the doctor who first diagnoses Yesterday’s illness and a Zulu village teacher, movingly played by Camilla Walker and Harriet Lehabe, respectively.
Even Yesterday’s husband, initially seen as the villain of the piece, is turned into a pitiful figure, a once physically strong man unable to come to terms with his fast-deteriorating health.
Heartwrenching 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.
A 1988 Tony Award nominee in the Best Featured Actress in a Musical category for her work as the title character in the Soweto uprising-set Sarafina!, Khumalo had previously collaborated with Roodt on the 1992 movie version of the musical, which also features Whoopi Goldberg, 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.
Direction & Screenplay: Darrell Roodt (as Darrell James Roodt).
Cast: Leleti Khumalo. Lihle Mvelase. Kenneth Kambule. Harriet Lehabe. Camilla Walker. Nandi Nyembe. Jacob Makgoba. Tinah Mnumzana.
“Yesterday Movie (2004) Review” notes
HIV/AIDS prevalence in Sub-Saharan Africa
 Update: 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.”
UNAIDS estimated that in 2012 Sub-Saharan Africa was home to 69 percent of the world’s population living with AIDS/HIV. Women accounted for 58 percent of those living with HIV in the subcontinent.
Lastly, as per the World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa is “home to 70% of all new HIV infections.”
“Yesterday Movie” endnotes
Lihle Mvelase and Leleti Khumalo Yesterday movie images: HBO Films.
“Yesterday Movie (2004): Exceptional Actress in Zululand AIDS Drama” last updated in September 2021.