Several episodes into Classified, it’s still hard to connect to the storyline. The world-building, character development and information-bereft backstory almost lead to nothing. On further inspection, it merely feels like a show of extravagance.
By Seyi Lasisi
Kagiso Lediga occupies the coveted spot as one of my favourite South African writers and directors. With Catching Feelings (2017), Queen Sono (2020), and Republic of South Ah Sh**t! (2023), to his credit, this position is only slightly contested by writer-director, Jahmil X.T. Quxeba (Sew the Winter to My Skin, Of Good Report, and The Queenstown Kings). But as I conclude watching the series, Classified, I have tried, rather unsuccessfully, to not feel mildly annoyed by Lediga’s new offering.
Classified centres around the life of Ella Gardner (Imani Pullum), a headstrong 15-year-old whose life course changes, following her involvement in a political protest in Oakland, California, that destroys police properties. In a bid to escape facing prison, she leaves her neighbourhood in California for South Africa, where her father, Gabe (Sule Rimi) lives with his wife, Dianne (Christine Horn) – a CIA agent – and their son, Kwame (Omhle Tshabalala), who occasionally brings comic relief to the series. Despising her father’s bourgeoisie lifestyle and her newly acquired privileges, she reluctantly begins attending Indiwe – a school for the children of expatriates, politicians, and celebrated criminals in the country. Ella’s singular motive becomes to leave South Africa, and she gradually gets involved in subtle criminal activities to achieve this: bribing her way out of the heavily protected school, working as an undercover agent for her stepmother to secure criminal-inditing information, and getting fake ID cards.
As she futilely strives to secure a return flight home, she forms friendships with the enthusiastic Greta (Nicola Nothnagel) and the working-class but smart Lolo (Paballo Koza). Unable to refrain from attracting public attention, Ella quickly becomes noticed by the school’s most popular trio – Gwyn (Mila Rayne), Nazli (Kelly Damon), and Amina (Luyanda Zwane), and the mysterious Ijemma (Motshabi Chakane). As a story that revolves around the children of expatriates and diplomats, the series occasionally sways away from its young-adult theme to becoming more politically charged and even sometimes becomes a thriller. Although this political tone gets puzzling at certain moments, it is passively commendable for a simple reason: the director.
Most parts of the series come off as an outright cloning of the South African Blood and Water (2020). Ella’s quest for information matches that of Puleng, the lead in Blood and Water. In both films, the leads get emotionally attached to unsuspecting boys, and the constant perambulation around town with the hidden intent to state how dangerous the streets are emphasises the headstrong nature of both Ella and Puleng, even as their laid-back appearance hides their bravery. Though the series is quite the archetypal young-adult series, Lediga’s distinct filmmaking style shines through and slightly sets it apart from Blood and Water.
Lediga has over time created an identity for himself. From his critical acclaim Catching Feelings, he announces his interest in visual arts, unforced comical acts and characters, and introducing a character who is a writer into the film’s plot. In Classified, Ella is a visual artist and her father is a writer. In different scenes, we can see Lediga’s literary influences shining through: a student holding the Kenyan writer, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow, and the school art department adaptation of Mbongeni Ngema and Hugh Masekela’s Sarafima!, a musical stage play about students’ involvement in the Soweto Riots of 1976. The subtle comedy in Classified passes commentary on the apartheid regime, class rivalry, and political and economic situation of South Africa and the rest of Africa.
Several episodes into the series, it’s still hard to connect to the storyline. The world-building, character development and information-bereft backstory almost lead to nothing. On further inspection, it merely feels like a show of extravagance. The series often reiterates the tense situation that leads Ella to South Africa. But despite Ella’s obsessive interest in going back to California, the series doesn’t entrust viewers with a relevant backstory as to why this journey back home is important. Understandably, her mother suffers a health challenge and she supposedly misses her friends and life in California, but her attempt to escape South Africa through dubious means reeks of bourgeoisie privileges that she supposedly scorns. By not giving us a glimpse into Ella’s life before her relocation to South Africa, it becomes impossible to view Ella’s actions with sympathy.
The carefully curated soundtrack invites viewers into the lead character’s head space. It calls us into her emotions; her disgruntled, angry, and loving dispositions. The sound design flirts between African acapella to the more beat-throbbing rap songs and romantic songs that well suit the young adult tone of the series. The cinematography offers a glimpse into South Africa’s scenery, allowing viewers to tour the country’s cities, with aerial and long shots which capture the architectural landscape of the working-class and ruling-class communities that the characters visit and live in.
With commendable films and series in his portfolio, Lediga’s Classified requires profound analysis. And in my naive thinking and confidence in Lediga’s filmmaking abilities, I thought the series would offer a different angle to tell a young adult story. However, when the second episode begins, it becomes clear that the series clones plot details from Blood and Water. With this realisation, boredom sets in for what should have been a thrilling cinematic journey.
(Classified is currently streaming on Netflix)
Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how they align with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.