Carnival is time of celebration, music, and culture. In Cape Town, South Africa, like most colonized regions in the world that celebrate the festival, the root of the event goes all the way back to the history of slavery. In John Barker’s engaging comedic caper, The Umbrella Men, history, culture, and crime intersect in amusing ways.
When Jerome (Jaques De Silva) returns homes to his Cape Malay community to attend the funeral of his estranged father Gershwin, he assumes that it will be a quick in-and-out visit. Working as a music producer in Johannesburg, he has no intention of carrying on his father’s legacy as the leader of The Umbrella Men, one of the major bands in the history of Cape Town’s Minstrel Carnival. In fact, Jerome is even considering selling the Goema Club, a focal point for the band and the community at large, to his father’s wealth adversary Tariq Cupido (Abduragman Adams). A gangster masquerading as a charming businessman, Tariq is not only the leader of a rival band but has played a pivotal role in the gentrification of the community by the Germans.
Unwilling to take part in the longstanding colonization that continues to ravish the land, Jerome begins to realize just how interwoven his father’s legacy is into the fabric of the community. What he also discovers is that his father used the club as collateral to take out numerous bank loans to fund The Umbrella Men’s minstrels each year. In debt to the bank a million-ZAR, and with only a few weeks to pay before foreclosure occurs, Jerome understands that desperate times call for desperate measures.
Pulling together a rag tag team consisting of musicians and shady criminals, Jerome comes up with a plan to rob the very bank his father owes money to. Furthermore, they are going to do the brazen heist on the day of the carnival when the streets will be flooded with people and police.
Bringing its own unique charms to the heist genre, Barker’s The Umbrella Men is a comedic delight. Carrying the same loose vibe as Ocean’s 11, and with cinematic references ranging from Deliverance to El Mariachi sprinkled throughout, the film hits many of beats one would expect. However, what makes this film such a joy to watch is the colourful cast of characters Jerome interacts with throughout. Take for example an amusing cameo by Kagiso Lediga, who starred in Barker’s 2006 road trip comedy Bunny Chow: Know Thyself, as a short-tempered foul-mouthed pawn shop owner. Featuring individuals whose area of expertise are questionable at best, one is never quite sure if Jerome’s team will pull the job off.
While the threat of the plan imploding from the inside is just as dangerous as it collapsing at the hands of Tariq, or worse the police, Barker subtly emphasizes that the stakes are far bigger than a mere club. Touching on everything from the history of Cape Town Minstrel Carnival, which marked the one day a year slaves got the day off, to the gentrification of the region, there is much to chew on here. By framing these elements within the confines of a comedy-heist film, it allows the film to convey its themes of freedom and struggle in an easily digestible manner.
Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that it is the people of Cape Malay, and not Jerome, who are in real need of freeing themselves of a past that still has them chained in the present. As Jerome himself learns, the key to breaking the oppressive shackles of history is to embrace legacies that uplift communities rather than turn’s one back to them. The strength of communal bonds is always present in Barker’s film, even in moments when it is in jeopardy of being torn apart.
Despite juggling so many balls in the air, including a charming romantic subplot between Jerome and a secretary at the bank named Keisha (Shamilla Miller), Barker’s film never feels overloaded. Moving at a brisk pace and filled with plenty of laughs, The Umbrella Men is delightful crime caper that is a crowd-pleaser.
The Umbrella Men screens as part of TIFF 2022, which runs from September 8 to 18. Head here for more from the festival.