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You Should Be Watching: Shaka Zulu

Revisit the riveting world of "Shaka Zulu."

If you seek epic historical drama, then binge-watch "Shaka Zulu." Telling the story of a Zulu military and political genius, "Shaka Zulu" is a first-rate miniseries.

Title: "Shaka Zulu"

Year it began: 1986

Where it can be seen: Netflix

Who’s in it: Henry Cele, Edward Fox, Robert Powell, Dudu Mkhize, Conrad Magwaza, Glen Gabela, Gugu Nxumala, Fiona Fullerton, Christopher Lee and Roy Dotrice.

Typical episode length: 50 minutes

Number of episodes to date: 10

Brief plot description: Told from the perspective of a British expedition, the miniseries depicts the rise and fall of Shaka Zulu, who ruled a mighty empire in southern Africa from 1816 to 1828.

Why it’s worth watching: Written by Joshua Sinclair and directed by William C. Faure, "Shaka Zulu" offers truly epic television. Filmed in South Africa, the South African Broadcasting System production features gorgeous sets, stirring music, excellent directing and a deep cast of talented actors. At the show’s center lies Cele’s magnificent interpretation of Shaka Zulu. Supremely confident due to his sense of exceptional royal birth and his extraordinary mental and physical discipline, Cele’s Shaka channels his deep-seated rage about his and his mother’s mistreatment into the forging of a fearsome military state.

Another key performance comes from Powell, whose moral, but intelligently cynical Dr. Henry Fynn thoughtfully register both the wonders and horrors of Shaka’s empire. The miniseries smartly filter events through Fynn’s perspective, thereby stressing that the show’s sometimes fantastic representation of Zulu culture and history is neither perfect nor neutral, but rather shaped by a Western, imperialist lens.

The show features many fine performances, including Gabela’s intense teenaged Shaka, profoundly enraged by years of disrespect; Mkhize’s Nandi, who moves gracefully from dreary exile to being an imperial first lady; Fox’s flippantly dangerous Lt. Francis Farewell, whose daring greediness embodies Western imperialism; Nxumalo’s shrewd Mkabayi, limited to being a courtly adviser by her gender; and Magwaza, who skillfully conveys both the exuberance and depression of Senzanagakona as his modest kingdom is replaced by his bitter son’s awesome war machine.

A fascinating technique Sinclair uses to respect Zulu difference is to have many actors use Zulu phrases, even after having clarified that the Western travelers have learned Zulu and the English we hear is simply translation for Western viewers. We are never allowed to forget that this story is about Zulu culture and history.

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