The movie “Happiness Is A Four-Letter Word” opened a few weeks ago with record breaking stats in just 10 days. By all intents and purposes, the film – a screen adaptation of the book by the same name, written by Cynthia Jele – is a chick flick; the three leads are all women, namely, Nandi (Mmabatho Montsho), Princess (Renate Stuurman) and Zaza (Khanyi Mbau). It is quite a refreshing film and I thought it would be interesting to see how they handled the often dismally clichéd roles of black men.
Thomas (Tongayi Chirisa) is Nandi’s fiancé. Thomas is one-of-the-boys type of guy, an all-round good guy who seems to lead a very simple life of mac and cheese dinners, jeans & t-shirts, braais and Eaufa matches. Their relationship is as sweet as you’d have imagined relationships to be back in high school. They have their own handshake and even a signature dance. This is all fine until you consider that Thomas is a struggling entrepreneur while Nandi has just made partner in her law firm. He also has a son from a previous relationship whom he sees on weekends or so.
Guys like Thomas are the type who women fall for because of his potential. He has that disarmingly naïve optimism about life that suggests a kind of sincerity that makes a woman entrust him with her heart. He is a dreamer and it often seems like a woman wouldn’t just fall in love with him, but they adopt his dreams too, with nothing to bank on but his beaming smile and warm heart.
Leo (Richard Lukunku). Leo, Leo, Leo…I actually feel sorry for this guy. Leo is Princess’s newest flame and a rising star artist. We first meet him during an art exhibition hosted by Princess. He shows up looking like the quintessential, transient struggling artist that you might bump into somewhere in old Yeoville or Lower Main in Obz. Boots, torn jeans, rugged jacket with a backpack that probably has a sketchpad, a demon or two and some other things that are “dope”.
Leo is the type of boyfriend who would forget the anniversary but would remember what his girlfriend wore on their first date, how her box braids made an uneven bun, how the tone of her chai latte matched her oversized jersey and how she pretended to love olives making her pull a cute funny face and wrinkle her nose, which made time hold its breathe. Or he would brazenly ask his girl expect the woman to pay the bill but, he could also create the same expensive meal at home just for her. And, as it turns out, not only is he a great artist, he’s also mean in the kitchen.
His creative lean makes Leo a man who is intuitive and sensitive towards a woman’s needs. But he also lives from moment to moment seeking creative highs, in constant attempt to be “in the zone”. This, for Princess, who is a lover of all things art, makes Leo’s sun bring much needed light in her life. Someone who is a freespirit and is in tune with his emotions. But, when Leo’s bright sun sets, well…
Bheki (Simo Magwaza) Is Zaza’s business mogul husband and father to their two sons. If Zaza is in her mid 30’s, then Bheki is five-to 50 or korapas 50. What is clear is that Bheki loves and adores his wife like any middle aged man would love and adore his daughter, incestuous pun unintended. This is not necessarily to say their age difference is an issue. It is more in how they carry themselves around each other; more respectful than intimate, more cordial that passionate.
Bheki probably lost his youth serving some greater cause like the Struggle while growing up with the hallmarks of black South African ills. Despite all of that, he has built a veritable empire of business, which is probably all that he knows. Much in the way in which Bheki constructs his life has to do with compensation for most of his flaws. He’s not an absent father, he’s working and he provides. He’s not an absent husband, he’s working and he provides. He’s not emotionally unavailable, he’s working. But nonetheless, the man does try. I mean, he makes pancakes for the kids while wearing a suit.
Chris (Chris Attoh). is also a successful business man. But, most importantly, Chris is an apex predator, alpha male, exuding a commanding gait and an aura of power that many women would find alluring. He is highly driven and exceptionally well groomed. Men like Chris get what they want. Period. If there is one thing certain about him is that he will be even more successful in future.
However, his propensity towards approaching everything as a business endeavour would most certainly spill over into his romantic life. By this I mean that Chris would probably deem any beautiful, confident and intelligent woman as a worthy candidate for a merger. But, he also thinks that committed relationships are a depreciating asset due to the limited scope of diversification with the only way to ease the terms being to pump more capital into the relationship. For Chris, everything and everyone has a price.
Bongani (Daniel Hadebe), I won’t tell you what role Bongani plays in the story but what I can tell you is that he is also a successful businessman and this guy needs a shirt. For most of his scenes, Bongani is shirtless and broody like a sad bulldog. What is also apparent is that the guy lays some good pipe. He is something akin to the fantasy of many women; a big hulking gym mass waiting for to give a woman that Yeezy re-upholstery.
But Bongani’s sexual prowess tends to cloud as understanding of relationships. Perhaps he relies on the a belief that good sex confuses a woman into a state in which he can then manipulate her. It could also be that he knows that there’s a place within in a woman’s being where love cannot reach but a penis can.
But what I appreciate about how the story presents these men is that they’re are not outright good or bad. Each is flawed in his own way in his own context. What is also a cliche that we’ve been saved from is the sadistic wife beater. This is not in any way to be blind to the existence of such men but more to illustrate more subtle forms of emotional mistreatment. Thomas’s constant expectations of Nandi to understand his challenges while making major life decisions without informing her could be a type of abuse. Bheki’s assumption that money can compensate for his lack of presence and intamcy is a form of abuse. Leo not handling his issues is abuse. Bongani thinking that he can fuck a woman into loving him could be abuse.