When South African director John Barker was seven years old, the Johannesburg native experienced Cape Town’s Minstrel Carnival for the first time. The annual celebration, which is rooted in the traditions of slaves dating back to the early years of colonial rule, is a colorful, raucous pageant unique to the Mother City — an event that Barker would later spend 14 years bringing to the big screen.
“The Umbrella Men” finally premiered last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, 16 years after Barker’s 2006 debut, “Bunny Chow,” debuted at the prestigious North American fest. Barker’s fifth feature was the closing film this week at the Joburg Film Festival, which wrapped Feb. 5 in the South African city.
“The Umbrella Men” is set in the Bo-Kaap, a formerly segregated Cape Town neighborhood that’s home to the city’s Cape Malay community, where the hip-hop producer Jerome Adams (Jaques de Silva) has returned for his estranged father’s funeral. Upon arriving from Johannesburg, Adams learns that he’s inherited both his father’s beloved jazz club and the custodianship of the legendary Umbrella Men minstrel group, a musical troupe that performs each year during the Carnival.
He’s also inherited a pile of debt, with just days to pay it off before the bank forecloses on the club. That sets in motion a plot inspired by classic caper films like Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast” and Peter Collinson’s “The Italian Job,” as Adams assembles a crew to pull off a daring heist during the Carnival.
There’s just one small problem. “These guys are not bank robbers — they’re musicians,” said Barker. “You know that they’re going to mess it up, and [the question is] will they pull it off?”
The bank job is set against Adams’ emotional journey as he struggles to reconcile his flight from the Bo-Kaap with his complicated relationship with his late father, a beloved member of the local community who cast a long shadow over his prodigal son’s path in life — especially in his determination to keep the tradition of the Minstrel Carnival alive.
“It was important to this community that the Carnival survived through colonial times and apartheid. The Carnival is a symbol of freedom,” said Barker. “Jerome’s father, Gershwin, loved the minstrels and believed it was their birthright and something that belonged to this Cape Malay community.” For the younger Adams, finding the love that was missing with his father means reconnecting to the culture and community he left behind.
The son of a soccer coach and anti-apartheid activist, Barker spent years traveling around South Africa with his father as a young boy, visiting impoverished townships across the country as well as Cape Town’s iconic District Six: a bohemian neighborhood that was razed by the apartheid government for being a symbol of the integration it hated and feared.
To bring the vibrant Cape Malay community to life in “The Umbrella Men,” Barker consulted with cast member Joey Rasdien, who plays an ex-con hiding from the cops, and recording artist Loukmaan Adams, two members of the Bo-Kaap community with strong ties to the local minstrel groups.
The script had to pass muster with community leaders, while the production was filmed with a predominantly Cape Malay crew, including the assistant director and all heads of department. “We were very aware of making sure we kept all the people the film was talking about in front of the cameras, and also behind the cameras,” said Barker.
Production is already underway on a sequel, “Umbrellas,” which is part of a multi-picture licensing agreement signed this week between Amazon Prime Video and the films’ production company Known Associates, granting the streaming service exclusive SVOD access to more than 20 South African feature films.
Set not long after the first feature wraps, “Umbrellas” involves a plot to bust the gang out of prison after they wind up behind bars. Much of the action is filmed on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment under the apartheid regime, and — in the spirit of any good heist — brings back the cast and production team behind the first film.
“We got the whole crew back,” Barker said, laughing.