“Where were you when we nearly died of hunger, persecuted by the scum of this land? Now that your calf has grown to be a bull with horns, you want him in your royal house? I accept this spear and shield, symbols that make me a Zulu warrior. But this [symbol of manhood], I’ll take by force, as I’ve made everything that I am… by force. If my mother is not your royal wife, then I know no man by the name of Senzangakhona kaJama.”
— 15 year-old Shaka tells off his father during a Zulu warrior initiation ceremony. From hour five of Shaka Zulu.
Shaka finally grows into Henry Cele midway through hour five of the miniseries. Night three’s early minutes, though, feature Glen Gabela as Shaka aged 15-19. Cele was in his mid-30s while shooting, so casting a transitional teenage actor like Gabela (whose superior physique mirrors that of Cele) was a wise move that lets Cele focus on the acting demands of a mature Shaka. 30 years gone, Cele is still captivating whenever he is on screen — whether it’s simply sitting clothed with royal regalia in the shadows of a fire-lit hut, or running full-tilt and bare-chested across a sun-drenched battlefield, his skin covered in sweat. Those images of Cele still linger, but effectively capturing them was a technical challenge for Shaka Zulu’s director of photography, Alec Mills (best known as cinematographer on two James Bond films, and camera operator on five others), as he recalled in his 2014 memoir, Shooting 007: And Other Celluloid Adventures:
The main problem I had with my lighting of Henry was his smooth matte-black skin, which needed grease applied to it to lift it to a more reflective texture. This worked well, but with a white face close to Henry’s very dark skin the balance was difficult to control when the actors moved around, which occasionally showed in the production’s final grading where it had not been possible for me to be present.
Mills’ camera effectively introduces us to the physicality that former-football goalkeeper (nicknamed “black cat”) Cele brought to the role during a grueling cross-country chase scene, where Shaka is pursued over all manner of terrain by a contingent of elite Zulu warriors. They have been dispatched by Senzangakhona to bring his son back alive, so that he can be properly groomed as future king, away from the influence of his mother, Nandi. Cele is introduced fleeing with his family from the home of kindly Gendeyana (who is killed soon after by the Zulu pursuers), and promising Dudu Mchize’s Nandi that this will be the last time she must run.
Shaka Zulu screenwriter Joshua Sinclair headed up casting of both Cele and Mchize, recalling the pressures to choose more bankable stars (including from miniseries director William C. Faure) during his 2013 interview for my film site, Camera In The Sun:
There was a lot of pressure from America, and also from South Africa to get an American to play Shaka. I said, “A Zulu has to play Shaka, or else you’re selling out your own people.”
Bill [Faure] would rather have had Denzel Washington, or somebody else. But there was this guy who was a chauffeur for Siemens, which is a big company in Germany. It was Henry.
I was in South Africa, and was interested in seeing what the difference was between buying a BMW in South Africa, and buying one in Europe. I was told the best place to check on that would be in Durban. So I went to a BMW dealer in Durban, and he said, “Let’s meet in a restaurant nearby.” So we met there, and we’re eating and speaking about it. He was German, so we were speaking German. And Henry, who understood German, was nearby. So Henry came over and talked to us in German, which is the last thing you would expect from a Zulu. So I turned, and looked at this gigantic guy, and I said, “My god, he’s wonderful.” Not only because he was ripped, but because of the fact that he was stately. I thought, “This is the guy who has to play Shaka.” So I said, “We’re having casting for Shaka. Do you want to come?” And he said, “Sure.” We had the casting, and I said to Bill, “This is the perfect guy for Shaka.” And Bill didn’t want that, because he wanted an Englishman or an American to play Shaka. He said, “No,” because he saw that as a way of making himself more famous — by having a big name to play Shaka. And I said, “No, Shaka has to be Zulu. I promised that to the king. It has to be a Zulu. You can’t take anybody else but a Zulu. It would be an outrage for the Zulus to have Shaka played by an American or an Englishman.” Bill didn’t believe in that at all.
Anyway, Bill and I discussed [casting Henry], and Bill finally agreed. Then Dudu Mkhize, who played Nandi, I met through an Italian photographer in Johannesburg. He said, “I have the most beautiful woman in the world.” That was Dudu, and she is Nandi. She was a model. Henry was a football player. Zero acting experience.
Regardless of the casting process, Faure’s direction effectively guides Cele’s (and the younger Gabela’s) performance on screen — where we see Shaka’s life events repeatedly directed by powerful isangoma, Sitayi. After young Shaka refuses to pledge loyalty to Senzangakhona during the Zulu initiation ceremony (which concludes with Gabela’s naked Shaka publicly declaring, “I will be king!”), the prince is pursued by warriors seeking to kill him for his royal disrespect. As he flees that night, though, Sitayi guides Shaka’s path to cross that of future-Mthethwa king Dingiswayo, who has been gravely wounded during an ambush. Despite the risk of capture, Shaka spends the night treating the older stranger’s wound, saving his life, and the two fugitives form a fast friendship while traveling away from Zulu territory.
We then jump ahead to 1815, with Cele’s Shaka introduced as the most skilled warrior living under the protection of King Kandlo of the Qwabes. Yet, the exiled prince continues to test his father from afar, by declaring his own superior claim to the Zulu throne, and denying Zulu herdsmen access to Qwabe grazing land. Finally, Senzangakhona is urged by his councilor, Mudli, to send warriors to kill Shaka, while the king observes the grim irony of the situation:
This is a vicious circle, Mudli — exiled to avoid death, now the death penalty is a consequence of his exile.
Mkabi sees things from a more pragmatic angle, preferring to personally mold, and then elevate Shaka from within the Zulu royal kraal, rather than see him wage (and win) a civil war over his two half-brothers, Dingane and Sigujana. She observes that the only way to do that is to forcibly separate Shaka from Nandi, and urges her brother to put his estranged wife on trial for treason and witchcraft, with a resulting execution. Senzangakhona only agrees on Shaka, and sends two dozen of his elite warriors to retrieve his son. Yet, despite an exhausting chase with an assegai wound to his thigh, the Zulu prince evades his would-be captors, and stumbles near-death into the Mthethwa Paramountcy of now-king Dingiswayo. After being revived by the power of Sitayi, Shaka recovers enough to meet his former-fugitive friend, who agrees to shelter Shaka and his family, and puts the immensely-talented warrior to work in his Mthethwa army.
Though a simple soldier, Shaka has a sharply analytical mind that immediately identifies weaknesses in his army’s approach to warfare. He tells stubborn Mthethwa general, Bhuza he should shorten the standard assegai-throwing distance from a traditional 50 paces, providing better aiming precision, and allowing more close combat — much to the general’s annoyance:
Bhuza: “Don’t you realize, soldier, that if we start rushing them, they’ll start rushing us? That if they have more casualties, so will we?”
Shaka: “I have thought of that, general. I think it’s advisable to make our shields bigger, large enough to cover the whole body. In that way, we can get as close as we need to, and still be well protected.”
Bhuza: “Then why don’t we just go into battle wearing our huts?”
Shaka: “Too cumbersome, general.”
Bhuza’s rigid attitude on everything from tactics to uniform (insisting the barefoot Shaka awkwardly don mandatory sandals) stifles the innovative Zulu prince (earning him a “troublemaker” label), and he vents his frustration to future Zulu general, Mgobozi:
Shaka: “Generals like Bhuza are dangerous. He lacks imagination. His mind is as nimble as a slab of stone. Warfare must be a vital, creative process.”
Mgobozi: “What can be creative about killing?”
Shaka: “A man chosen to wield life and death on the battlefield must be an artist. If he isn’t, he’s simply a murderer.”
Yet, Shaka’s notions of warfare artistry meet disappointing reality during his first Mthethwa engagement with the Dlamini, as Dr. Henry Fynn recounts in his journal voiceover:
The battle against the Dlamini was to be a turning point in Shaka’s fighting career. For battles were often staged in a manner somewhat in the character of a jousting tournament. These battles comprised demonstrative gestures, with the occasional flinging of long-stemmed spears. Whenever an army exhausted its supplies, then the warriors would join their supporting spectators, singing, hurling verbal abuse, and in this way generally trying to outdo the other side. Occasionally some would enter the foray, and some would be wounded or overpowered. But it generally remained a festive occasion. And when the day was done, and the battle fought, it was argued that surely war was won by subjugation, and not by destruction… Shaka would not see it that way.
Shaka engages a taunting Dlamini warrior, but loses his sandal while running, and snaps his flimsy assegai trying to stab through the warrior’s cowhide shield. Demoralized, Shaka stalks off the battlefield to jeering laughter. However, he soon refocuses his energy on redeveloping his spear — shortening the handle, while lengthening and broadening the blade. The result is the iklwa, and a devastating new era of tribal warfare, in the next vengeful hour of Shaka Zulu.