Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

“Music by Prudence” Profiles a Powerful Voice

I just watched this year’s Oscar-winning documentary Music by Prudence, which profiles Prudence Mabhena, a 21-year-old Zimbabwean singer. Growing up with a disability called arthrogryposis, which significantly limits her physical mobility, Prudence has had to defy low expectations and vicious prejudices just to survive. Rejected by her parents and her culture, Prudence finally, literally found her voice when she began to sing. With several of her classmates at a school for children with disabilities in Bulawayo, Prudence has formed a band called Liyana.

With subject matter like this, some filmmakers would turn out a sappy story of overcoming personal tragedy through cheerful courage. But director Roger Ross Williams has made a film that’s more complicated, and far more interesting. Prudence herself is no plucky poster child. She’s angry — understandably so — even unforgiving of the parents and others who gave up on her when she was just a child. (On the other hand, she honors the grandmother who loved her, raised her, and taught her to sing.)

And Prudence does not succeed strictly through individual effort. She’s surrounded by her friends and bandmates, all young people with disabilities. In the film we see them encouraging and supporting one another. They laugh together, travel together, and create together. They express to each other their rage against the oppression inflicted on them, often by their own families. Even their clothing conveys solidarity and challenge: In several scenes the musicians sport, like cheeky uniforms, T-shirts that simply say, “SO WHAT?”

This is not an easy movie to find, unless you’re an HBO subscriber; it premiered there last week, and will be broadcast throughout this month. The DVD has not been released yet. The movie is playing at a few film festivals around the country, and you can purchase and download the soundtrack from iTunes, Amazon, etc. My advice: See it; hear it; pass the word. Get more information at the Music by Prudence official movie website.

As for myself, I’m adding Music by Prudence to my list of all-time favorite disability-related documentaries.

One Comment

  1. Jackie says:

    Wonderful movie! I had the pleasure of seeing it at MountainFilm in Telluride, where Prudence spoke and sang a couple of songs afterward. She truly is a force of nature!

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