Umbrella Men Features a Melanated Cape Town, South Africa as the Main Character

In order to offer transparency into how our stories are produced and to teach our readers about the importance of media literacy online, the editorial team provides a quick self-rating of the integrity of the articles and the facts presented against the following IQ metrics.

  • Published on September 23, 2022
  • Last Updated March 10, 2023
  • In Guest Writers

The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival early this month, portrays 21st-century Cape Town with a vivid authenticity that brings a critical perspective to post-Apartheid South Africa.

It is not uncommon for a film’s setting to steal screen time from the main characters and plot. When thinking of The Italian Job, the first thing in people’s minds might be those Mini Coopers in the tunnels under the city. Ocean’s Eleven brings the Bellagio Hotel and Casino to mind. And, not unlike these films, Umbrella Men follows this trend. This film is the new South African caper about a bank heist during the culturally significant holiday, the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival. Although the film tells the story of Cape Malay’s journey to freedom alongside the thrill of a bank heist, the real star of Umbrella Men is the city of Cape Town itself.

Interestingly, Cape Town’s history, neighborhoods, its people and typography all were intentionally centered in the film through a combination of animation, wide shots and dialogue. The challenge, however, was to do this in the most authentic way possible. “We didn’t want to make it that suddenly these guys had an issue and then they turned to robbing a bank,” said John Barker, the film’s director. “So, they had to be ready to justify why they would rob a bank.” He goes on to explain that the film’s premise stems from the history of Apartheid as far back as the 1960s in the area known as District Six, a predominantly poor, Black community. “So this whole beautiful community where the minstrels actually always started the economy from, well that whole suburb was torn down,” Barker said, explaining that through segregation efforts driven by Apartheid laws, Black communities were moved out into an area called Bo-Kaap, which has an extensive history of its own as a predominantly Muslim and multiracial community.

Umbrella Men cast picture
Behind the scenes with the cast of Umbrella Men, depicting life in Cape Town. Courtesy of Mike Ford Photos

In Umbrella Men, the Geoma nightclub, inherited by Jerome (played by Jaques De Silva), is moved to escape similar destruction. It’s placed in a new space that resembles the Bo-Kaap region, which is where it was actually filmed. Barker explained that the area’s residents loved the endangered-nightclub story angle because they felt it connected them to their own history. This tie helped make the robbery seem like a necessary next move. The bank must be robbed to save the club because, historically and in the film, there’s no other option.

Cape Town native Keenan Arrison, who plays Mortimer, Jerome’s best friend who recently got out of prison, reflects on how he felt shooting the film in his community. “Growing up in Bo-Kaap was such a — I keep saying this — it’s such a full-circle moment,” Arrison said. “We were shooting, walking the same streets on Bo-Kaap. As a kid, I did that. And to be able to do that as an adult, as an actor, was so special.”

This historic connection to Arrison’s community and Barker’s attention to authenticity really helped develop Cape Town’s personality in the film. Arrison also credits the film’s cinematographer, Motheo Moeng, stating that the cinematography depicts the city as people know it, but have never seen before on screen. “It was so prevalent in the story,” Moeng said. “As a Capetonian, we’ve never seen Cape Town as we do in this film. It was really special.”

Another Cape Town native on the cast is Shamilla Miller, who plays Jerome’s love interest, Keisha. She described the carnival scene as so real that bystanders in the community joined in the fun and dancing while they were shooting. “You could feel the energy, you could hear the music, you could literally see it in the road as you’re walking — the groups of people from the Bo-Kaap that came to watch this day,” Miller said. “All because it felt like it was the carnival.” The carnival is portrayed so vividly in the film that travelers looking to visit Cape Town can get a real sense of the celebration in Umbrella Men.

Other tourist attractions are incorporated into the film, such as The Cape Town Castle, another name for the 17th-centuryCastle of Good Hope. Barker wanted to convey that the attraction was much more somber than it looked because of the brutal colonial history that took place within its walls. “It’s a big tourist attraction,” Barker said. “But it’s also, I mean, it’s really hectic, it’s terrible. I mean, what happened to these people… there were torture chambers and everything. So, we were very mindful of all that.”

Miller hopes that the entire film experience helps the audience see Cape Town and its people in a different light by featuring them and their space as a Bo-Kaap resident would see it. “[Umbrella Men] is a part of Cape Town and a subculture of Cape Town that hasn’t been shown in many films, especially like artistically or positively,” Miller said, explaining that the film is educational in that international audiences are likely to learn something new about the city, culture and community that they didn’t know before.

Bronte Snell, also a native Capetonian, plays Jerome’s childhood friend and co-conspirator, Milla. When the film screened, Snell was eager to see how well her community and culture would be received around the world. “I’m trying not to cry,” Snell said. “But it was just seeing all these different people accept our stories. And I feel like a lot of Capetonians don’t know that these stories matter. There are a lot of South African stories that aren’t being told yet because they just haven’t been given space for it.”

Umbrella men cast photo
Cast of Umbrella Men smiles for the camera. Courtesy of Mike Ford Photos

Jaques De Silva plays the protagonist, Jerome. His goal was to have viewers really think about the community, the country and its people in a whole new light after watching the film. “If you look at South Africa as a person, as an entity, Cape Town, this community, is an aspect of our personality,” De Silva said. “ A part of the rich tapestry that makes this a Cape Town story, but also a South African story. And also, I’m very proud to be here in Toronto, and realize this is also an African story, you know?”

Umbrella Men is a stage on which the city of Cape Town shines. Many of the artists involved in creating the film believe it has had a positive and far-reaching effect on portraying South Africa in an authentic but historically accurate way that inspires travelers to visit. “It [the film] shows our beautiful city in a new and colorful way that may not have been seen before by international eyes,” Miller said.

Jonita Davis ( is a film critic, writer, and pop culture junkie behind the online publication The Black C.A.P.E. Magazine (, @theblackcapemag). She is also a freelance writer, a published author, an English professor, and a podcaster. She has a master’s degree in English (Literary Criticism Concentration) from Purdue University and teaches writing at Waubonsee Community College. Her previous works include Michigan City’s Marinas(History Press 2009), Michigan City’s Washington Park(History Press 2011), Questioning Cultural Appropriation(Enslow Publishing 2019), and We Gon Be Black Today(Chicago Review Press, 2023).

This story was created by Detour, a journalism brand focused on the best stories in Black travel, in partnership with McClatchy’s The Charlotte Observer and Miami Herald. Detour’s approach to travel and storytelling seeks to tell previously under-reported or ignored narratives by shifting away from the customary routes framed in Eurocentrism. The detour team is made up of an A-list of award-winning journalists, writers, historians, photographers, illustrators and filmmakers.

(Visited 11 times, 1 visits today)