DINGAKA, ignored when it came out in 1965, a trivia question mark today, was one of a trio of adventurous movies actor Stanley Baker sequentially made in southern Africa, preceded by the  battle epic Zulu, followed by the neat survival saga Sands Of The Kalahari. The first has endured as an action classic, the last gaining overdue respect after underperforming when released. Tucked away in between the higher-profiled projects, this arresting culture clash drama was written, produced and directed by Jamie Uys, who later became much-lauded for The Gods Must Be Crazy. A time capsule piece set in then-apartheid South Africa, it’s a mix of impressive visuals and vivid music-accented passages yielding ground to clumsily conceived subplot scenes. The word dingaka refers to ‘traditional healer’, in this instance ‘witch doctor’. The advertising tagline ran with “Dingaka Means Danger…Terror…Adventure!

South Africa, the mid 1960’s. In one of the Bantustan tribal homelands, an arrogant Xhosa tribesman loses a traditional stick-fight contest and seeks revenge help from the tribal witch doctor. This requires the sacrifice of a young girl, one of twins in the family of  ‘Ntuku Matwena’ (Ken Gampu). The murderer flees to Johannesburg, enraged Ntuku in pursuit. Adrift in the alien world of the whites, Ntuku’s desire to exact justice lands him in jail, where he ultimately is represented by white lawyer ‘Tom Davis’ (Baker). It’s a volatile mix in an uncompromising situation.

Just because he killed your daughter doesn’t give you the right to kill him. We’re civilized here: we do it for you.”

Bracing first third in the tribal community gives way to the portion in Johannesburg that is a mixture of interesting and inept. Gampu impresses throughout, but Baker’s surly character is poorly written and the subplot with his unhappy wife (played—not to her credit—by Juliet Prowse) is amateurish.

The best elements come early on. They include truly wild celebratory dancing (making those in Zulu look tame) and some marvelous music, beautifully rendered; Bertha Egnos arranged the traditional African songs and further musical crediting goes to Eddie Domingo and Basil Gray. Fearsome regalia helping, John Sithebe makes a baleful presence as the malevolent witch doctor; his voice was dubbed by Pieter Hauptfleisch. Though done on a budget, director Uys was able to make use of hundreds of extras in the crowd scenes.

Running 98 out-of-the-ordinary minutes, Dingaka was a success in South Africa (with both black and white audiences) but failed to make a ripple elsewhere. With Alfred Jabulani (Ntuku’s jovial friend, there for a touch of comic relief), Paul Makgoba (the culprit), Flora Motaung (Ntuku’s wife) and charmers Thembi & Thandi as the twins.

* After a few uncredited bits, at 34 Ken Gampu (1929-2004) made a strong impression in this picture and became one of the first black South Africans to figure in well-known Hollywood films, including The Naked Prey, The Wild Geese and Zulu Dawn (he’s very imposing in opening scenes of that superb epic). A former teacher, policeman, and interpreter, he spoke seven native dialects as well as English and Afrikaans.

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