In South Africa, residents of the humble Marseilles commence with the day’s chores. A group of ragtag boys known as the Five Fingers gather on the side of a mountain, staring at one another to see who’ll make the first draw. Wiggling his fingers, Tau quickly retrieves a smooth pebble from his pocket, places it into a slingshot and launches it striking Pockets, another member of the group, in his head.
The game of speed, precision and execution acts as practice for the group who fancy themselves soldiers against the settlers building railways. And while the boys’ weaponry may be primitive compared to the guns of their gluttonous opposers, their courage (albeit naïve) is still ferocious.
Zulu, the ringleader; Pockets, known for his money; Pastor, the storyteller; Cockroach, a shameful nickname for a miserable bony-faced boy; and Tau, the strongest and sometimes meanest of the bunch, later come together to drive out two white soldiers terrorizing the dusty town. The group throws rocks and eggs as the men are forced to retreat, but not before one captures Lerato, their cinnamon toned, round-faced friend and Tau’s childhood crush. He chases after them on his bike, cutting them off on a dirt road forcing the vehicle to flip over and crash.
As the men stumble bloody from the car, Tau in a fit of passion does away with his slingshot and kills the white soldiers with their own gun. He then takes off, hops a ride on a train leaving his life and the mess he made behind.
Twenty years later, Tau, played by South African television star Vuyo Dabula, is now a proper outlaw who’s rightfully earned the name The Lion of Marseilles. Upon his prison release, he drifts back into the home he left hoping to make amends with his past. He wants to keep quiet, opting to set up a makeshift residence in the mountains, only to realize his town is in deeper ruin than imagined and possibly by the men he once called friends.
Vuyo, which means joy in Xhosa, stands front and center in Michael Matthews’ Western with an imposing yet gentle stature. Moviegoers may morally be torn by Dabula’s portrayal of Tau. He’s a likable murderer who encompasses humility, a touch of charm and even after life on the run and time behind bars, evokes a firm moral compass.
But never forget just how quick on the draw he is.
Dialing in from Swaziland, the 41-year-old actor spoke candidly about using his father as an anchor to play his brave but reactionary character, and why it’s important for filmgoers to wrap their minds around the idea of a black cowboy.
VIBE: I liked Tau a lot. I really understood his imperfections. What did Tau, teach you, Vuyo?
Vuyo Dabula: I think he’s actually pretty judgmental, to begin with, and I think he’s a bit quick to react and people who are quick to react, I think sometimes they judge situations as black and white. I think Tau, going through life, running to Johannesburg and coming back with the life experiences that he gets, he comes back as a changed person.
I come from a place where people are very judgmental, but then you meet people and you realize we’re all human. That inspires him and changes him and makes him a better person. So aside from being judgmental, he judges himself harshly as well.
Tau possesses a certain calmness and rationale but he also seems at any moment he can boil over. I read that, that duality was something you saw in your father. Is that true?
Yeah, I was actually telling someone recently that, he was a guy who was extremely sweet and gentle. He could cook too, he could cook really well. But at the same time, he’s the same guy who was not afraid to see blood. He could shed blood, really quickly; get into a fight like a real fight, a bloody fight. He seemed to lack that basic human fear trigger. That ‘get away, get away’ from the situation. He was calm and it would take a long time to get him there, but when he did get there it would happen quickly with no hesitation.
I read your father died two years ago. My condolences.
He did. Thank you.
Do you think your father would’ve recognized himself in your performance?
The only similarities between my father and Tau is in that scene when Sepoko tries to show him off in the bar, where Sepoko orders two drinks and Tau reaches out and takes his cup and drinks from him. I think that’s the only real time Tau is really much like my father.
It’s kind of coded where you don’t see if this person is bubbling up or not. If need be, it will get really ugly and you don’t know why or how because there were no telltale signs. But Tau and my father differ in, you know when Tau is about to fight Sweetface. You can see the anger welling up if that makes sense. You can see it dialing up and then it explodes on the giant. My father, on the other hand, would’ve done it with a smile on his face.
Yeah. It would’ve been more of an enjoyment than a…
Yeah, or anger.
This isn’t your first film. You’ve worked alongside Idris Elba and you were also in Avengers: Age of Ultron. You’re most famous for playing Gadaffi on Generations The Legacy, but now you’re leading a film. Did you feel any pressure?
I did. I was very anxious. But I learned my lines and I prepared by boxing. I really tried to dive in as a role of a fighter and the material. However, just the magnitude of the project made me nervous, so I simply went up the mountain and talked to God.
I’m going to be honest with you, I’ve never seen a Western in my life.
[Laughs] Oh really?
Yep, never saw one. I’ve also never seen a black cowboy. What I loved about this film was that there was no white savior. How do you think moviegoers will digest this film?
I mean it’s gonna be a few people watching who are still going to be caught up with one race is better than the other, but every race plays a part in producing individuals that stand out in society. If I’m going to speak for my people, we’ve made Frederick Douglas, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali. We’ve got so many heroes who have transcended basic human what-have-you and done great things.
So I think, why not have a black cowboy? We’ve been subconsciously taught that western heroes should be white, and seeing a black cowboy might be uncomfortable for some. But I’ve got a 4-year-old son and thank God he’s going to see a black man rescuing his own people. I’m grateful that he’s going to grow up and see it. It’ll be his father, but by the time he sees it I hope they’ll be more black heroes in movies. I think it’s important for a balanced society.
Five Fingers For Marseilles hits theaters today.