Sneak Peek: Blood Psalms – The End Begins

Here’s what to expect from Blood Psalms, a series bejeweled by South African filmmakers and film stars, which airs on September 28th.

The main draw for Blood Psalms, the latest and certainly most ambitious program yet released by Showmax, which at last held the premiere of its first two episodes on the 24th of August, is likely to be its dramatic magnitude. As an African TV series, the scale of the production on Blood Psalms is essentially unprecedented, but beyond that, this opulence bleeds into the scope of its storytelling, as writer and director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka involves and develops the disparate African mythologies of the past into a web of mystic conspiracy and fiercely defended self-interests.

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We learn that it has been one thousand years since the fall of Atlantis, and the five surviving houses of Kemet, each marked by cultural divides and a distaste for one another (even as some uneasy truces preside), find themselves hurtling towards the prophesied end of days. Princess Zazi (Bokang Phelane) of the Akachi is marked as the harbinger of their damnation to arrive on the eve of her 18th birthday and grows determined to guide her people away from their fate and ‘break the cycle of war and self-destruction’. Her venal father is the mad King Letsha (Four-time SAFTA-winner Mothusi Magano), who trembles and lumbers through his palace invoking retributive magic in desperation like a paranoid Richard the Third.

The lavish citadel of Akachi, all towering effigies and descending gates, seems to make up the lion’s share of Blood Psalms’ grand sets by production designer Chantel Carter and art director Addie Vigario for episodes one and two (mostly sidestepping visual effects as far as the scenery is concerned), whilst the remaining tribes occupy the sorts of atmospheric settings Qubeka typically stews his characters in. The cave dwelling Chini, who announce themselves in the second episode, may occupy a largely undoctored location (save for the promise of an enchanted, and heretofore unopened gateway), but their glowing staffs and physical performances fill the space (they scatter and ‘yip’ like Heyenas, posturing aggressively).

Regardless, everyone is draped in ornately realised costumes by the great Pierre Vienings. Rounding out the factions are the visiting Ku’ua, reviled by their Akachi hosts and seemingly governed by an over-the-hill chief (who’s sons Qotha (Hamilton Dlamini) and Hlengu (Bongile Mantsai) vie for heirship), the Uchawi, gifted with magic and ruled by the scheming Magi Queen Assili (Faith Baloyi), and the Great Nziwemabwe, whose powerful Senator Jabari (Richard Lukunku) has designs to reclaim the Northern Territories.

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It’s a setting that requires a major dose of exposition, and the lofty concerns of palace intrigue must be laid out before complications can arise, but before long underdog characters with more personable stakes enter the fray, including Burutti (Mandisa Nduna). She’s self-assured but undermined by her fellow Chini “cursed ones”, and her unassuming endeavors contrast with the powerplays of the royals and mystics. Princess Zazi could be a star-making role for Bokang Phelane, but Burutti’s character may well become the show’s standout.

This cacophony betrays the sort of plot intricacy and adult-schewing content that is more justifiable for local filmmakers under the streaming umbrella of Showmax than in the confines of weekly late-night television. Plenty are making comparisons to the mature fantasy of Game of Thrones and they are apt. For one, these are the touchstones which we have to compare Blood Psalms with because there is no equivalent on their scale and in their vein in all of African media. A great piece of myth revitalizing like Yeelen is trampled into the arthouse market because it does not have the money behind it to claim importance and makes entertainment a secondary concern. There are too many barriers of entry. So, Blood Psalms is the “African Game of Thrones”, in catering to audiences with an equivalent dramatic style. But, the two are also similar because of the nature of their legend-reshaping genre.

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is the melding of historical drama (a sort of heightened War of the Roses) and the epic fantasy of his idol J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was itself the result of his imagined reconstruction of an uninhibited Anglo-Saxon literary and mythological tradition, as Blood Psalms may aim to capture for African storytelling. Say that you have only scraps of untended to legend, passed down in spite of all resistance and cultural suppression, so you sew them together into a sort of localized monomyth to produce an ‘illusion of historicity’. It’s reconstructionist myth-making, with the objective of yielding archetypes captivating to a modern African audience. The difference in motivation of course being, Tolkien embarked on his novel as a linguistic thought experiment that readers happened to find enchanting, whilst Qubeka and producer Layla Swart are trying to do justice to a neglected wellspring, hoping to meet a modern audience who seem poised to dispel their imposed disinterest in African narratives.

It’s a massive effort, spoken entirely in African languages, prioritizing African audiences and heritage. Blood Psalms stands a chance to provide an experience unlike any other, so long as it makes good on its worldbuilding with richly drawn drama.