Netflix’s second original installment of African content – Blood & Water, arrived Wednesday and is an addition to the network’s increasing library of young-adult contents.
Over the years, critics have slammed the streamer network for the erasure of dark-skinned girls in most of her teen drama series. An attempt was made in Sex Education, on the latest Installment with the introduction of Chinenye Ezeudu as Vivienne “Viv” Odusanya, a girl who tutors Jackson and a member of the quiz team.
Blood & Water however eliminates this problem as a first-of-its-kind African original, it tries to match up with the aesthetics and style that shot non-Netflix shows like HBO’s Euphoria into the stratosphere.
Blood & Water tells the story of 16-year-old Puleng Khumalo (Ama Qamata) who is from a middle class South African family, and unlike most girls her age, Khumalo is driven by only one thing: trying to solve the cold case of how her older sister, as a baby, was abducted seventeen years ago.
The first part of the series explores Puleng’s family which expressed a lot of tension in the family, a thing that can be deduced from their conversations with each other and dictating the atmosphere plus the past in which they all share together.
In the opening scene, they throw a birthday party for Puleng’s long-disappeared sister at home, to show she’s clocked 17. The birthday cake is pastel-pink and somewhat depressing. Puleng feels listless and detached. Why do they have to celebrate her sister’s birthday every year?
She watches her mother pull out her hand from her father’s clutch as she gives a speech. Puleng’s father is accused to have been responsible for her sister’s abduction, trading her off to a child trafficking ring that fronts as a child adoption institution. So he drifts in and out of their lives. This time, he’s present for Puleng’s sister’s birthday. Exonerating her father becomes the show’s linchpin. Also, we get to see how Puleng navigates high school power structures.
When she learns that her lost sister is alive, whom people now call Fikile Bhele (Khosi Ngeme) and goes to an elite school called Parkhurst College, she orchestrates her transfer and moves there. Teenage girls in tartan mini skirts and thigh-length grey socks as school uniforms, blazers lined with gold ribbon for a general look, everyone reeks of money and access. Fikile would later be her friend, then enemy. Then friend again. Fikile’s clique of friends – the glib-mouthed Greteli (Reece Van Rensburg), the Oscar Isaac-looking pansexual Chris (Arno Greef), and a black boy who’s too jaded to become a rapper KB (Thabang Molaba) – have their character arcs intertwined with Puleng’s.
In Blood & Water, there’s sex, with male characters showing glimpses of butt cheeks. Club parties are drenched in acid neon, where beer plastic cups and wristbands glow in the dark. Cute camera angles and framing give scenes a stylish effect, not to mention the pulsing soundtrack. As a mystery drama, the show doesn’t quite hold up. Puleng’s detective work, with help from her colleague Wade (Dillon Windvogel) aren’t enough to keep the viewer invested in the story. With the way it ended, beguilingly setting the show up for a second, perhaps it would have been best if the show had leaned into its darker themes. For example, Puleng confiding in Wade that she was being stalked and her paranoia.
Written and directed by award-winning South African filmmaker Nosipho Dumisa, Blood & Water doesn’t do anything particularly inventive, but it provides a standout performance from first-timer Ama Qamata. A snapshot of South Africa’s youth culture on an international stage, Blood & Water is worth a try.