Percy Mtwa’s contemporary saga of political/personal strife in a South African township, “Bopha!” has been transferred to the screen with tremendous emotional power and integrity. The theatrical directing debut of actor Morgan Freeman is a handsomely crafted, potently played drama that brings the issue of apartheid down to a visceral human dimension. However, the charged nature of the material tends to limit appeal to a partisan crowd.
Commercial prospects remain rarefied. This is a quality production with direct appeal to a small moviegoing segment. It should score in urban, ethnic areas fueled by strong reviews, but secondary life in smaller centers and foreign response can be expected to be erratic.
Set in 1980, the story revolves around the Mangena family. Micah (Danny Glover) is the senior black police officer in his township. He takes great pride in the peace and order evident in the small community and believes in the South Africa that has existed for decades under white British and Afrikaner rule.
His son, Zweli (Maynard Eziashi), is cut from different cloth. He’s a student , and his generation is striving to make a country of majority native rule. As wife and mother, Rosie Mangena (Alfre Woodard) finds herself in the role of conciliator.
With growing unrest in other townships, De Villiers (Malcolm McDowell), an officer in the country’s Special Branch, is charged with keeping the Mangenas’ township calm. The irony is that De Villiers’ hard-nosed tactics provoke a situation in an essentially tranquil environment.
Since, thanks to media coverage, the real-life events are so familiar, the script’s fire derives from the fractious relationshipbetween father and son. The country’s evolution is codified in their divergent views.
“Bopha,” from the Zulu language, means to arrest or detain. In this tale, that constraint translates into a stasis that can be resolved only by violent force.
Freeman has a natural feel for environment and a not surprising facility with his performers. Glover’s work verges on the Shakespearean as he portrays a man of power undone by blindness and tradition. Eziashi has the charisma and energy of youth, and even Woodard, in a thankless role, provides a gem of a performance. The youthful supporting cast is also strong, as is Marius Weyers as the township’s knowing white police administrator.
The only misstep comes from an all too familiar depiction of bigotry as embodied by McDowell. The Brad Bird-John Wierick adaptation does not find the flesh and blood of this character.
“Bopha!” is a heartfelt and anguished cry. Though moored in historic/geographic specificity, it is an easily understood and universal tale.