Mmabatho Montsho is one of the most recognizable women in the South African acting industry; her career spans prime-time television, theater, film and online. From Lumka to Women on Sex, Mmabatho has morphed into one of the most respected people in film-making due to her approach to tackling societal issues using the arts. She takes some time to tell us about the journey to becoming what we like to call her: a Maven.
Melenial: I was first introduced to you through your role on Generations as Lumka but where did acting begin for you?
Mmabatho: Acting scenes out from our favorite Chinese martial arts movies with my siblings and childhood friends is one of my earliest memories. Getting into primary school, meant stage acting through school plays became part of the fun. I joined drama class as an extramural activity around grade 4 or 5, along with choir class. I enjoyed the discipline that came with formal training. Generations was my first professional acting job, before then I hadn’t ever even landed a commercial- just one modeling gig for True Love magazine.
What has it been like to see yourself and the industry grow since then?
Since then I’ve become a director, writer and producer. The growing pains were and are there but the satisfaction of achievement makes it worthy. I grew because I wanted to influence how our stories are told as I see a lot of racist and sexist approaches to the South African story. In terms of industry growth, I am still more interested whether that growth includes or applies to black female filmmakers or not. I’m interested in what independent work we are doing/are able to do to carve our own paths where WE determine for ourselves where our mission and the industry can go.
When I was younger, it was amazing to see people like you on television & on your True Love Babe magazines – because, to be honest, Lumka was a care-free black girl. Which women did you get moved and inspired by before your career began?
Another tv groundbreaking fact about the character Lumka which was not explored enough in the script was that she was bisexual. There were also stories of sex workers being explored. I need to remember who the head writer was back then because they were on fire. The women that inspired me were always in politics – I used to steal my dad’s books and read about Winnie Mandela and Assata Shakur. I also loved sports women, Venus Williams was the star of the Williams sisters back then. I loved her and Laila Ali, boxer and daughter of Mohammed Ali.
What is your approach to the work that you do? Before you set out on a project, is it important for you to define what you want that project to do to move society or culture to a certain place?
I follow the inspiration. Some projects provoke you into action whether you like it or not – they keep you awake at night until you execute them. Some yes, one has to think about what you intend the project to achieve. I think I tend to want to do restorative work or provocative work. I am not interested in pure entertainment.
What I love about the Happiness movie is that it shows that black womxn are not this unilaterally thinking, living body that shares the same experiences. We are complicated, problematic and we all have different ambitions. What made you say YES! to the role?
The script was immediately relatable. It felt familiar and I realized it was the first time I was reading a script written by a black woman. I simply HAD to do it. These characters were neither the typical angel or stereotype femme fatal, they’re were nuanced, messy, familiar and REAL. It was the first time I read characters who were just plain real and not overtly functionary.
Your work on Women & Sex is amazing. Tell me about how this concept came to be and why the online route as a dissemination platform?
It evolved from a conversation into a web series quite organically. It lives online because that is where it can be what it is. I couldn’t wait for someone to give it a platform any longer. I felt it was important to archive, if you will, the kinds conversations that were happening around sex and sexuality at the time in an audiovisual format. Black women have been working to challenge and change the limiting & stereotypical messaging about themselves using print platforms and social media and my contribution came in this form. Perhaps in future we will find a television broadcaster that is happy to carry it for what it is and develop it while keeping it’s integrity.
Women & Sex is also what led me to want to find out more about you as a film maker and director. Is this something you have always been and where would you like see yourself go in these now behind the scenes roles?
I’ve been directing officially for 4years now. Filmmaking is definitely my calling. I love to create, from inception through to the end. I am happiest doing that.
When you started in the industry, did you know & set out to have such longetivity and staying power this long?
I follow my whims and inspirations. I don’t know where they will lead me.
Do we need more young black women film makers? If so, why?
Certainly. The reflection of society is incomplete without our voices. And we shouldn’t limit ourselves to thinking we can and should only tell stories about ourselves – we must also tell stories about men and white women and white men and Indian stories etc. We must give ourselves permission to also contribute our perspectives on those worlds as they do with ours.