The plot centers on students involved in the Soweto Riots, in opposition to the implementation of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools. The character Sarafina (Leleti Khumalo) feels shame at her mother's (Miriam Makeba) acceptance of her role as domestic servant in a white household in apartheid South Africa, and inspires her peers to rise up in protest, especially after her inspirational teacher, Mary Masombuka (Whoopi Goldberg) is imprisoned.
The film was shot on location in Soweto and Johannesburg, South Africa. Darrell Roodt directed, with the script by Mbongeni Ngema and William Nicholson. Leleti Khumalo reprised her role as Sarafina, with Whoopi Goldberg as Mary Masombuka and Miriam Makeba as Angelina. Companies involved included the British Broadcasting Corporation. In the United States, the MPAA, rated the film PG-13 for scenes of apartheid-driven violence. The extended version, released in 1993, was rated R for strong scenes of violence. For Whoopi Goldberg, this was a project she was determined to be a part of, and convinced the executives at Disney that if they agreed to make this film, she would agree to reprise her role as Dolores Van Cartier in Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit, which Disney was very keen to make since the original had brought in many millions worldwide.
The film was screened out of competition at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival.
The film was released on 18 September 1992. Sarafina! was re-released in South Africa on 16 June 2006 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Soweto uprising in Soweto. The re-mastered director’s cut is not very different from the original, except for the inclusion of one scene that was cut from the original, between Leleti Khumalo (Sarafina) and Miriam Makeba (Sarafina's mother), which includes a musical number "Thank You Mama".
Sarafina! was unsuccessful in North American box office receipts, grossing $7,306,242.
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