Heist films come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. There’s the family comedy (The Bad Guys (2022)), the musical drama (Baby Driver (2017)), the superhero action comedy (Ant-Man (2015)), the save-yourself drama (Widows (2018)), the zombie survival action drama (Peninsula (2020)), the based on a true story dramedy (American Animals (2018)), and the spy flick (Mission: Impossible (1996)). This is only a sampling of films from recent cinema history that doesn’t include classics like The Sting (1973), Rififi (1955), or To Catch a Thief (1955). The point is that a heist film is not confined to any one genre, any one period, or any one community. All it requires is confidence. You’ve got that and audiences are bound to be entertained. In this vein, having its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival is co-writer/director John Barker’s (Wonder Boy for President) new feature film, The Umbrella Men, a heist dramedy set in Cape Malay that takes full advantage of the famous Kaapse Klopse festival to create the opportunity for a particularly unique daylight heist.
Returning home for the funeral of his father, estranged son Jerome (Jaques De Silva) discovers that his father’s beloved club, Goema, is in debt to the local bank to the tune of a million rand, a sum neither Jerome nor any of Goema’s supportive community can afford. Jerome doesn’t want the club himself, but the only interested party is a family rival, Tariq (Abduragman Adams), who’s more interested in gentrification than cultural preservation. This means that if Tariq gets the club, so goes Jerome’s family history, the cultural significance of the Goema Club, and the Umbrella Men, a historic Cape Town Minstrel Carnival band tied to the club. With so much on the line, Jerome pulls together a plan to rob the very bank whose operators are trying to take advantage of him, hoping that the Kaapse Klopse will provide the cover they need to get the job done. But Tariq is no fool and Cape Malay is a small town where secrets don’t stay hidden for long.
The script from Barker and Philip Roberts (Atlantis) beautifully balances the character beats with the needs of the genre, opting to explore only that which is necessary to the story. For instance, Jerome’s friend Mortimer (Keenan Arrison) is introduced as getting out of jail the day of the funeral after a 10+ year stent. The details of his incarceration are less important than the fact that he and Jerome clearly never lost touch (setting up their intimacy as friends), as well as his character being the focal point by which all the rest of the heist can even occur thanks to his connection to a still-inside fellow inmate known as the General (Irshaad Ally), to whom many freed individuals owe some form of fealty. There’s a story here of course, but Umbrella doesn’t need to explore it in order for anything else in the film to function; instead, Barker and Roberts allow the actions and reactions of characters to speak meaning into the narrative where necessary. Even the selection of a heist is within reason versus the last ditch effort of someone with no criminal experience: Jermone, Moritmer, and their friend Mila (Bronté Snell) used to steal wallets from festival-goers as kids, so this is a leap several ranks higher than wallets, but still not outside their relative skillsets or morals. Rather than pass judgement on the trio for the idea, the narrative has countless layers to support their idea beyond the typical good vs. bad.
Consider, if you will, the Kaapse Klopse festival itself. As indicated by text ahead of the opening of the film, the festival was originally conceived as a sort of second New Year celebration on January 2nd, a gift from the slavemasters during the colonial era of Cape Malay. From this, a celebration of music, color, and life was born, changed from the negative minstrel, or Coon Carnival as it was once known, and reclaimed as a form of self-expression and independence. Across a fortnight, Umbrella Men unfurls its narrative in which the prodigal son sets forth to free his father’s home, his family legacy, from those whom would profit from its destruction. Heist films often deal in shades of gray with the protagonists being some form of bad guy that’s not quite as bad as the antagonists. De Silva has a great presence being charming and suave as Jerome, making it easy to want to see Jerome succeed. That Adams’s Tariq is a manipulative gasbag more interested in financial gain that community uplift certainly makes him easy to root against, too. But the intentionality of Tariq’s motives coinciding with the festival doesn’t seem to be just about providing Jerome with a fantastic distraction; rather, Barker and Roberts appear to weaponized the festival as it exists now as if to say, “You can try to keep us down, but we will always find a way to take back what is rightfully ours.” If one prescribes to the idea that private property is inherently theft, then theft is a fine way to reclaim what was taken. Is the film suggesting that one should be in support of stealing? Not even a little. Instead, one read is that if one seeks to support the slavemasters, the colonizers, the ones who would destroy your indigenous culture or identity, theft in the name of reclamation is honorable, right, and necessary.
While that may imply a certain weight or heaviness to Umbrella, the film is very much a comedy, not in the vein of Ant-Man or The Bad Guys, but more like Snatch (2000), which placed its characters in situations with others prone to larger-than-life personalities or who deliver lines with a delicate hyperrealism. Tariq’s talk of a tsunami doesn’t have quite the same depth of resonance as Brick Top’s (Alan Ford) nemesis speech, but it’s not meant to either. Tariq is a menace, sure, but he’s terrible at it, his threats so overt that, while the danger is real, his approach to it is comical. Similarly, pawnshop owner Tendeka (Kagiso Lediga) lays out his terms of cooperation with Jerome in a way that establishes he’s not to be trifled with, but does so in dialogue that’ll have you giggling. (Personally, having Tendeka reference a fav Robert Rodriguez film during his not-so-veiled warning regarding treachery gave this reviewer an additional chuckle given Umbrella’s ties to music.) Natural silly moments are peppered throughout Umbrella which makes it a charming experience (sharp viewers will pick-up on a great Ocean’s Eleven (2001) reference) though the frequent jokes at Mortimer’s expense regarding the possibility of either rape or assault in prison does become reductive to the whole after a while.
As mentioned before, all the great heist films possess confidence. Barker’s The Umbrella Men is no exception. It knows what kind of story it wants to tell, slowly reveals the hidden talents of its cavalcade of characters in natural ways, presents reasonable flies in the ointment, and delivers on the good time it promises. Not only that, it’s anchored in its community which is specific to Cape Malay, something no other established heist film can offer. So paint your face, put on your dancing shoes, and join in the celebration: the Umbrella Men are about to play.
Screening during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official The Umbrella Men Toronto International Film Festival film page.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.