Author: David Williamson
Writer’s Potential: 7
Logline:In the early 1980s, a rebellious South African record producer coaches a mixed-race soccer team in an effort to fight apartheid racism.
Synopsis:Amid a protest/funeral procession in a segregated rural township near Johannesburg, a group of 12-year-olds play soccer in the dusty streets. They include star athlete BRILLIANCE, religious CHRIS, clown PERCY, tiny SIPHO, and nerdy SERAMI. Not surprisingly, Brilliance is by far the most talented of the group. Afrikaner militants come to stop the funeral procession. Defiantly, the kids start kicking their soccer ball back and forth over the tank. Enraged, one of the officers shoots it. In downtown Johannesburg, PAUL KRIGE (20s, an English South African) interviews with STAVROS for a position at his record label. He impresses Stavros with his knowledge of rock, so he’s hired. He makes awkward introductions with the rest of the staff: ANNETTE, an attractive and sophisticated Afrikaner; and blacks PETE and ZOBO. Paul is crippled by prejudice against both Dutch-descended Afrikaners and blacks. Pete and Zobo let it roll off their backs, but Annette immediately dislikes Paul — both because of his English background and his love for rock music (she’s the manager of the label’s classical artists).
Paul tries to sell the music Stavros produces to various record stores. It’s easy to sell, but Paul finds the music cloying and terrible. He asks Pete and Zobo if they know of any better talent. When they argue no white bands are good, Paul asks them to find some black groups that are better. Paul coaches a group of young Afrikaners in soccer while Pete and Zobo look on. They’re both impressed with Paul’s skills. Paul wonders why they’ve followed him. They want to take him to hear new music. In the car, the trio crack racial jokes to relieve the tension. Pete and Zobo take Paul into Soweto, their segregated township. Paul is terrified of the dangers a white man would face in such a place. Pete and Zobo introduce Paul to some of their musician friends. He’s amazed by their talent — and even more amazed by Pete and Zobo’s talent. Pete is an extremely talented musician and producer, and Zobo is a great recording engineer. Outside, Paul sees the kids — including Zobo’s son, Brilliance, and Pete’s son, NEIL — playing soccer. He’s impressed, especially by Brilliance. Brilliance performs a special move he calls “Tsamya,” a risky move that pays off against his less talented friends. The fun is broken up by ARCHIE, a township radical who’s enraged at the sight of a white coaching his children (his son is Serami). Zobo stands up for Paul, but Archie sends Serami home. Paul brings the recording to Stavros. Annette insists on listening, to Paul’s annoyance. She naturally hates it — and so does Stavros. He doesn’t understand why anyone, even the blacks, would buy such music.
Paul quits and founds his own label with Pete and Zobo. His mother, STORM, is livid that his son intends to make a living making and selling “black music.” Some time later, a radio DJ tells Zobo he can’t play their music because the government says the lyrics have secret communist messages. He and the others are infuriated. They try to sell tapes on street corners in Soweto, but they don’t sell any until they slash the prices to a loss. One day, while training at his soccer club, Paul is surprised to see Pete and Neil. Pete saw an ad for under-13 soccer players. When Paul starts to protest, Pete points out that the government recently changed the segregation laws — mixed-race teams can play together. Paul tries to convince others at the club to let Neil play, but they refuse. At work, Zobo complains about the racism. Brilliance rushes in with yet another deflated soccer ball — a result of them practicing on a gravel field. Paul gets an idea. He brings the group of black kids to work with the E team, the worst players at the club. The whites don’t have a complete team, so Paul pads their numbers with the blacks. The others complain that Paul will lose focus from the senior teams he coaches, but Paul is insistent that he can coach these boys into a winning team.
It’s an uphill battle. The black and white teammates don’t get along, especially when Brilliance is made team captain. The whites make the excuses that their parents won’t let them play. Paul consults with the parents. Even though they clearly aren’t happy about it, they want to appear liberal, so they allow their kids to play on the team. This doesn’t make the kids any happier, however. The kids won’t work as a team. Paul has to convince them to stop arguing and work together. At a fancy restaurant, Paul spots Annette with her fiancé, JANSIE. They flirt with each other, to Jansie’s irritation. At the next practice, Archie shows up with a group of other radical activists, all pissed about this arrangement. Archie takes the kids and leaves. Paul forces Zobo to drive him into Soweto, where he confronts Archie. It takes some effort, but Paul makes Archie see that this arrangement is a positive step in uniting South Africa. When Archie returns the kids, he sees that they don’t get along with the whites. Similarly, he doesn’t get along with HANSIE, the father of one of the white kids (TOM).
Meanwhile, CHRISTIAN (Annette’s wealthy, well-connected father) conspires with another soccer coach, STANLEY, to stop this team. Stanley forms a plan. Some time later, he confronts Paul in front of his team, challenging his kids to play the A team. Paul ups the stakes: if they win, they become the new A team. When the A team’s coach asks for a team name, a sarcastic kid from the A team yells, “The Zebras,” because they’re half-black, half-white. Despite the hostility, the teammates actually like the name. Paul rallies the kids and puts inexperienced Neil in the goalie position. They play against the A team and win, narrowly. Stanley is stunned. This interracial group is now the A team. Paul sends Annette a tape of his latest release, suggesting she use the band at her wedding. Annette is surprised that she sort of likes the music. She mails him a Schubert record. The Zebras battle St. Martins, but they’re down two goals and the team starts to unravel when a ref unfairly calls a foul. They end up losing the game. Stanley wants Paul to give up the A team title, but Paul argues they can’t do this after one game. At the next practice, he tries to bring the kids together yet again, but it’s not working. Archie demands that each black boy partner up with a white boy and talk until they find some common ground. Paul insists Archie and Hansie do the same. They all manage to connect to each other in surprising ways, and suddenly the team starts to jell.
At the next game, the Zebras tie because Neil is skittish when the ball flies at him. Paul works one-on-one with Neil, helping him calm himself and take the hits. A montage shows the Zebras continue to play, undefeated. Annette surprises Paul at work. She’s dumped her fiancé. Zobo warns Paul about going after Christian Kruger’s daughter. Paul doesn’t listen — he starts dating her, to the annoyance of her parents. The Zebras play St. Martins — the champion team — again. Brilliance performs his “Tsamya” move and scores a goal. Enraged, Paul orders Brilliance never to make the move again. Brilliance takes himself out of the game and quits the team. They lose, 4-1. Annette takes Paul to a fundraiser hosted by Christian. Paul is not happy to hear the hypocritical rich talk about helping the blacks financially in the same breath they talk about the importance of segregating them. He offends Christian and storms out of the fundraiser. Christian talks with JOHANNES, the head of BOSS — the Afrikaner secret police — about Paul.
Paul begs Brilliance to return to the team. Zobo figures out a compromise: Brilliance can do Tsamyas only when the Zebras are far enough ahead that it won’t matter if he fails. Paul refuses, so Brilliance stays away. Reluctantly, Annette breaks up with Paul. As soon as she leaves, she’s mugged by a couple of young blacks. Paul comes to her rescue. He asks her for one more chance, to show her what he’s actually doing. He takes her to a practice, where she’s surprised to see how normal and apolitical it is — just kids playing a game. She realizes she’s fallen in love. Angry that the Zebras keep winning, even without Brilliance, Christian goes to Johannes and orders him to bankrupt Paul’s label. Johannes pays Stavros to poach Paul’s clients. After a game, Paul drives the white players and Annette into Soweto. She’s horrified to see, for the first time, how the blacks are forced to live. The younger kids don’t quite understand it. Archie is enraged to hear Christian Kruger’s daughter is poking around. He verbally abuses her until Paul takes her home. When Paul takes Archie’s side, Annette breaks up with him.
Paul finds out that most of his clients are leaving. The label is wrecked. Paul is shocked to learn they’re going to Stavros, who hates this sort of music. He realizes something’s wrong. Christian decides to have the Zebras play St. Martins before a black soccer championship, to humiliate the team in front of tens of thousands of blacks, thus reducing support for the political movement rising because of this team. Serami takes part in a protest, resulting in the police beating him badly. He can’t play. On his way to visit Serami, the police pull Paul over, take him to their headquarters, and beat him nearly to death. Annette comes back to him, angry that her father could support a government that would do this. When Paul is released from the hospital, he quits coaching the team. To his surprise, Storm shows up at the label offices. She reminds him of a pair of bullies that kept taunting him, until he finally stood up for himself. This energizes Paul. He returns to the team, begs Brilliance to return as well, and brings the Zebras to the Ellis Park stadium. During the first half, the Zebras don’t do well because St. Martins cheats (they have a ref in their pocket, and they’re using kids older than 13). Annette humiliates Christian by rooting for the Zebras. During halftime, Paul strategizes for the second half, but the police drag him off. He can’t finish his thoughts. The police hold him until the second half starts. Despite these tactics, the Zebras end up winning — once Paul, on the sidelines, orders Brilliance to do a “Tsamya.”
Closing title cards describe the aftermath: Paul became a marked man after the game and fled to Australia, where he became a high-level record executive; Pete and Zobo continued the Sounds of Soweto label, which flourished; the kids all led successful lives.
Comments:Zebras is a sort of small-scale version of Invictus, telling the true story of a soccer team that attempted to unite South Africa. While it’s interesting and different enough from Invictus to avoid seeming derivative, the writer takes on so many characters and so much story, the script loses sight of the human drama of a deeply divided soccer team. As written, it merits a pass.
The first act does a nice job of establishing Paul, Annette, and the black characters. It also does a reasonably good job of balancing Paul’s personal and professional life with the foundation of the Zebras. However, the script breezes a little too quickly through Paul’s transformation from typically prejudiced white South African to champion of equal rights for all. The second act tries to balance the soccer action with Paul’s budding relationship with Annette and the increasingly intense politics of the region. This is where the script begins to lose focus. The kids and the team are never as interesting as they could be because the writer spends a great deal of time reminding audiences that apartheid was wrong. It’s not that this shouldn’t be dramatized — just not at the expense of getting a better understanding of the characters, there desires, and more interesting conflicts among the teammates.
The rousing championship game in the third act does a lot to make up for the earlier story problems, but their win comes a little too quickly in the second half of the game. Paul making such a big deal about Brilliance’s “Tsamya” moves earlier in the script makes it too obvious that it’ll be the thing to save the day. More than that, though, the writer never makes it clear why Paul is so opposed to the move. It’s a major source of conflict in the script, so it’s a little infuriating that it goes unexplained. While it ends on a positive note, the closing title cards hint at a darker truth — Paul has to flee the country for standing up and winning. While that’s not exactly the stuff of happy endings, it would have been interesting to see that dramatized rather than relegated to a “Where are they now?” title.
To his credit, the writer gives a lot of background information on many of the characters. Although Paul has a lot of depth and nuance, one aspect of his personality remains a frustrating mystery throughout. The writer makes a point of showing that Paul is not a political man, but he doesn’t make it clear whether or not Paul understands that his decisions have political ramifications or not — whether politics motivate him or not, he’s sometimes portrayed as reckless and irresponsible for dragging kids into something he should know will lead to danger for all of them. His relationship with Annette should be the key to understanding his real feelings and motives, but instead they just argue about the politics that are supposedly not driving him.
The black supporting characters are universally well-written and interesting, even though the writer doesn’t focus on the team’s interpersonal conflicts nearly enough. As a result, the white players on the team get the short shrift — we don’t know much about them beyond their names. One plays the violin, and one’s an Afrikaner (apparently rare for South African soccer), but the writer doesn’t develop them nearly as much as the black players. In much the same way, Christian and his wealthy/politically connected friends are portrayed as irredeemably evil. If the writer had given as much nuance and complexity to these characters as he did to the black characters, this script might have turned out a little more complex and surprising.