The star of the 2010 Oscar-winning documentary 'Music By Prudence' was promised a life of good health, fortune, and stability. But, the people who could've saved her instead profited off of her misfortune and left her high and dry.
For an industry that is hell-bent on keeping up appearances — pushing glamor and excellence — the United State’s movie industry is riddled with stories of greed, exploitation, and deceit. Hollywood has a knack for stealing the stories of often incredibly underprivileged and disadvantaged individuals and profiting off of shocked and disconnected Western audiences in what can only be understood as trauma porn. 36-year-old Zimbabwean singer Prudence Mabhena knows this story all too well.
Today, Prudence sits in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe with the independent life and fulfilling music career she saw for herself a distant memory. She was born with Arthrogryposis, a chronic ailment that severely affects the joint structure and functions of an individual. In 2010, Mabhena had an operation that straightened her spine significantly, however, the lack of appropriate medical equipment has seen her health decline over the years.
In her friend Mia’s words, “Recently, a disability rights activist named Engracia Figueroa died after her electric wheelchair was damaged by United Airlines. Engracia had to then use a manual wheelchair, which over time caused skin ulcers and gastrointestinal issues which became fatal. Prudence is already starting to experience these problems since she’s been using a manual wheelchair since 2019.” As someone with non-weight bearing and non-ambulatory disabilities, she’s trapped. Trapped in her body and circumstances that she knows she could overcome if given the opportunity.
What’s infuriating is that she did everything right.
You’re told that hard work and positivity can take you anywhere – and, for a short period, it did. Mabhena was given the opportunity to perform on stages around the world because of her talent and joyful demeanor, her story touched people and she was ready and willing to play her part. However, it was made clear that director Roger Ross Williams and producer Elinor Burkitt’s real interest lay in their own career development. A messy lawsuit that saw Burkitt attempt to ‘buy back’ the film, the unbelievably cringy Oscar’s acceptance speech, and Burkitt’s post-Oscar self-serving media tour all focused on everything but the community they were supposedly so drawn to empower. Friends and allies of Prudence have attempted to reach Williams and Burkitt, but the blame is shifted to Mabhena herself.
We spoke with Prudence about the great highs and deep lows that came with starring in an Oscar-winning short documentary. In her own words, Mabhena tells her tale of childhood ignorance and the lengths people will go to to exploit the lives and circumstances that the less fortunate are dealt.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Prudence Mabhena and 'Music By Prudence' director Roger Ross Williams
Photo by Andy Kropa/Getty Images
How Prudence got her start in the music industry
I started my music career in 1999 when I was in grade six. I went to King George VI and joined an acapella group and choir. I joined a group called Ngojani and we toured Switzerland for three months. We sang in a stage production with a group of people with mental disabilities. In 2005, I joined a band called Liyana and we also began to take our music around the world. We competed in music competitions in Sweden, The Netherlands, Belgium, and so many others. It was with Liyana that the documentary ‘Music by Prudence’ came about. The documentary was done by director Roger Ross Williams and produced by Elinor Burkett. It was taken to the Oscars and [won the Best Short Documentary category in 2010.]
How ‘Music by Prudence’ came about
Elinor Burkett, the producer, was in Zimbabwe lecturing at a university. Her husband was a sculptor, and Liyana was invited to perform at one of his exhibitions. Unfortunately, the whole group wasn’t around because of the school holidays, but the school director asked me and our keyboard player Farai to stay. We performed at the event and Elinor fell in love with us. She said, “I would love to see them share a stage with Beyoncé,Alicia Keys” or some other stars in the States.
When Elinor returned to the US, she spoke with Roger, and he became the director of the short documentary. They then asked each member of the band to write about our backgrounds: how we grew up, how we were born, and how we got to the stage. It just so happened that my story caught their attention and they decided to focus most of the documentary on me. Roger then came to Zimbabwe to shoot a five-minute short story – what I was doing at the time, parts of my performances. He returned to the US and when he came back I took him to the rural areas that I grew up in and that’s when we started shooting the film.
It took about a year of filming. In 2009, the film was taken to the US for the award season. In March 2010, it won the Oscar.
When the red flags started popping up
They started acting shady just before the documentary was taken to the academy. Roger had said, "It's better for us to do a story about Prudence -- and then we include the band in relation to her life." Elinor’s argument was that we needed to do a longer documentary and include the whole band and their stories, while Roger said it wouldn’t make sense because all of our stories are so different. He said a longer documentary would be boring and confuse the message. And the fighting began. Elinor said she’d do her own documentary to be shown only in Africa, and Roger said, “OK, I’ll do my short documentary, Music By Prudence, and take it to the academy.”
During the Oscar's acceptance [speech], Roger and Elinor had some sort of misunderstanding. They called it “pulling a Kanye West.” Elinor got on stage, pulled the mic away from Roger, and just totally spoke over him. It was a big scene and got people more interested in the documentary.
Roger Ross Williams and Prudence after 'Music by Prudence' won the Oscar for best short documentary in 2010
Photo: VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images
How Prudence and the band were compensated
Roger promised us so many things but unfortunately, we were kids. We didn’t know that sometimes people make promises that they don’t plan on keeping. We didn’t know that they had to put them in writing with their signatures and stuff like that. We were over-excited over the idea of appearing on TV in the United States, performing in front of the entire world. But, we didn’t know that, at the end of the day, some people will make a fortune off of you, you get nothing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
In June 2010, I was called to the US to attend a screening of the documentary, perform, attend a few Q&A sessions, and speak at motivational conferences. We went to Washington, DC to perform at the Kennedy Center, Baltimore, New York City, Pennsylvania – even as far as Colorado. It was then that Roger said that he’d pay me $3000 for the screenings, performances, and Q&As. If you really look at it, $3000 is nothing. Having an Oscar award-winning documentary is a big deal – but anyway, I said “OK”. It was better than nothing.
While I was in the US I’d stay in hotels and sometimes Roger would ask why I wasn’t ordering room service. And we’d travel by car to certain events, and the car would have to stay parked. The day before I left for Zimbabwe, Roger left his personal assistant to come and talk to me about the money. The PA explained that they were going to subtract the costs of food, transportation, hotels – even the souvenirs we were encouraged to buy. So, the $3000 he promised me turned into $1000. Well, $1,197 to be exact. That’s what I got for winning him an Oscar.
It was painful. Mainly because the rest of the band was looking forward to getting something, but they got nothing. Absolutely nothing. It still hurts because Roger went to the extent of promising my grandmother a brand new house. He said to her, “if this documentary wins an Oscar, I promise you – I am going to buy you a house.” The fighting between Roger and Elinor also divided the group. Elinor would run to the other members of the group and say things like “I’m having issues with Roger. He doesn’t want to do a documentary about all of you – just Prudence – and it’s not fair. Pay attention, because Roger and Prudence want to use you.” And of course, when they looked at it, they believed that I was part and parcel of using them. But I didn’t know. I couldn’t do anything to change the circumstances. The documentary really weakened my relationship with the band. Money got involved, Roger and Elinor couldn’t agree, and they lost trust in me. They had promised us all that we could attend the award ceremony, but in the end, the academy said only two representatives per film, so I went with an assistant.
Roger also promised to help me move to the US so that I could have access to better medical facilities and attend a music school. The condition was that I spoke ill of the late president Robert Mugabe. Those who know anything about Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe know that that would have been very dangerous for my family. I would be safe in the US but what would happen to my grandmother, parents, and siblings? I couldn’t do that. That’s when Roger started being mean, giving me less money than he promised. Elinor fulfilled some of the promises she made to the other bandmates. Three guys at the school, Goodwell, Energy, and Honest, all passed and progressed to the advanced level, and Elinor promised to get them scholarships to continue their studies in the US. They did end up going. But, for the five of us that remained – nothing happened for us.
Prudences' health over the years
At one of the film screenings, I met a doctor who specialized in scoliosis – curved spines.
After getting an examination, he said that my spine had curved so much that it sat at 11:40 - one clock hand on the 11 and the other on at 4. He said if I stayed like this or let it progress, I wouldn’t live for more than three years. He helped me look for spine and back specialists.
I was meant to go to Ghana, where the specialists there were said to be able to operate without electricity. It didn’t work out, as funders were nervous about what they thought might happen to their money in an African country. They preferred sending me to the US to do the spinal fusion, and thank God the surgery straightened me out. Before the surgery, singing was really hard. At the end of shows, I’d be exhausted, breathing heavily, and would sometimes feel pain on my left, where my lungs were getting squashed. It was a life-saving opportunity, and I got to sing for my nurses and doctors after I recovered at a children’s hospital in Denver, Colorado.
I got an electric wheelchair in 2011, and it broke down in 2019. I opened a GoFundMe campaign, but couldn’t get enough money to replace the chair – so we got it fixed. It took a year and when I got it back from a specialist in South Africa, it started to fail in the same ways. The Pay Mobile wheelchair had functions that helped me become independent. If I got tired, I could tilt to free and relieve my buttocks. When I wanted to stretch my waist, I could recline. If I wanted to get onto the bed, I could elevate the wheelchair and do it myself. I could cook for myself, sweep the floor, and get on the toilet seat in that chair. Unfortunately, a manual chair doesn’t allow me to do any of that. My music career has also suffered. I’m stuck – I can’t even move around. And now with the pandemic and people going back to work, people are focused on their own lives and I’m stranded at home, with no one to push me around. It’s quite stressful because I know that if I had an electric chair, I would do great things out in the world. I know I would do my best to survive, and make the world happy. I could get back to my legs and work again.
But, I’m still alive.