October 26, 2009

Class of '84 Blogathon: The Gods Must Be Crazy

[This remembrance is brought to you as part of Joe Valdez's Class of '84 Blogathon at This Distracted Globe, a celebration of films from on the 25th anniversary of what many people consider the best film year of a generation.]

There are few movies that define the period in which they were made as much as the bizarre docucomedy The Gods Must Be Crazy. The story was officially set in the present day of the early 80's, but the footage of the generic city where "civilized man" lived, and even more so the music that backed this footage, inadvertently trapped the movie in a very, very specific time period (check out the first 10 minutes I've included here to jog your memory).

The Gods Must Be Crazy was actually produced in South Africa in 1980 but not shown in the U.S. until 1982, and even then in very limited release. Positive international word-of-mouth ended up bringing the movie back to the U.S. in 1984, when it opened in wide release and pulled in $30 million at the box office. So despite its birthdate I'm including it here because 1984 was the year it really made its impact in the United States.

Since I would have been three years old at the time I'm positive I didn't see it in the theater, but it remained culturally relevant throughout the decade, eventually even being shown as part of geography lessons in American classrooms (where I'm pretty sure I saw it at least once). After the sequel arrived in 1989, however, and after another sequel (1991) and another sequel (1993) and another sequel (1994) arrived, almost all of the thought-provoking cultural insight from the original was lost forever. Indeed, what started as a brilliant social commentary in 1980 ended as a silly slapstick comedy franchise more than a decade later.

I think it's safe to say that the social boundaries of political correctness would prevent The Gods Must Be Crazy from being made today. In fact I'd wager that that's exactly why it's also never shown or even talked about at all 25 years later. It takes a somewhat sophisticated sense of both humor and cultural awareness to fully appreciate this movie; it's either the funniest or most offensive movie you've ever seen, depending on who you are and how you look at the world.

I'm not going to claim to have these sophisticated senses (I liked Tropic Thunder, after all), which leaves me still fairly confused about how to process this movie. I had a similar reaction to Borat - many of the depictions deeply disturbed me, yet when I stepped outside of myself I found the mocking of American culture in many ways brilliant. The same can be said for The Gods Must Be Crazy, though it's an even more fascinating case because it presents a global situation, not specifically an American one (and not even an African one, really).


I haven't actually even seen The Gods Must Be Crazy for well over a decade, but I chose it from the list of '84 because even at a young age I knew that it made an impression on me. Not only was it funny by generic comedy standards (likable characters, perfectly timed physical gags, etc.), but it was so richly based in reality that you weren't sure sometimes what was staged and what wasn't. It was filmed in South Africa, made by a South African, and starred a Namibian bushman from the Kalahari Desert, N!xau, who like his character had never encountered the Western world before (and was thus completely fleeced by the producers, being paid a mere $300 for his work). 

In an ironic cultural crossover, N!xau actually starred in all five "sequels" and traveled around the world before moving back to his rural village in the 90's. An obituary suggests that he died of tuberculosis, and observes that, "nothing that was important to us was important to him," a statement may be a perfect distillation of the film's message. 

The Gods Must Be Crazy taught me that a lot more about "civilization" than I probably realized at the time, and I couldn't help but laugh while watching the beginning here again. In fact I am so impressed with the first 10 minutes that I'd really like to sit down and watch the whole thing over again to find out if, as an adult, my reaction to and understanding of The Gods Must Be Crazy may have changed.

Check out the other Class of '84 Blogathon entries at This Distracted Globe!


  1. Aye Dan, I do remember this one has having exceptional slapstick comedy, which even trumps the trenchant satire. It's one of those films that is endlessly entertaining, even if as you rightly norte, the sequels diluted the deceit. I received endless amusement from what ensues when the bottle is dropped from the sky. Lovely review, which brings back a number of memories.

    BTW, I do favor 1989 as the best film year of the 80's.

  2. Thanks, Sam. I think TGMBC came right during another sequel craze in the 80's - lots of blockbuster franchises as well as some unnecessary sequel series (i.e., Police Academy). It's too bad this movie couldn't have existed as a stand alone and gotten some more respect so many years later.


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