Paramount // 1993 // 118 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // April 7th, 2005
The struggle for freedom begins at home.
If nothing else, Bopha! has all the components of a great movie. It was released in 1993, just when South African Apartheid was falling apart and gaining international attention. It had a top-notch cast, and a script that analyzed the situation from a black perspective. This promise is not quite delivered on, and the film ultimately feels like a Television movie of the week (albeit a very good one). Paramount has done a fine job with this release, though, making it worth a watch for the politically conscious.
Like many others in South Africa, policeman Micah Mangena (Danny Glover, Lethal Weapon) is just trying to make a good life for his family. He doesn't think that his job advances white power in the apartheid state, but others in the racist system don't agree with him. Violence has been committed against black policemen in neighboring towns, and his wife Rosie (Alfre Woodard, Blue Chips) and son Zwali (Maynard Eziashi) are afraid that the violence will hit closer to home. When a protest starts in the area and the tough Captain De Villier (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange) is brought in to keep order, the tension in the town quickly escalates into violence. Micah's family has begun to realize his horrible role in the town, but he may not understand until it is too late.
There is a lot to like about Bopha!. It has a lean, smart script that doesn't oversimplify race relations in South Africa during Apartheid. It is honest in showing that blacks were treated unfairly, but it doesn't simply draw a line in the sand between the two races, equating black and white with good and evil. Instead, Bopha! shows an entrenched system of power and control, ever pushing one race further down until they finally fought for their own rights. The real success of the film is in the blindness that Micah has for the system around him. He is proud to be on the force, and proud to keep order in the society. He loves the power that comes with the uniform, and the privilege that his position gives him. He makes a decent living, even though his wife needs to work as a maid in the house of his boss.
Danny Glover is perfect in the role. He has plenty of experience playing an American cop, but he never lets his performance backslide into comfortable territory. He is strict and stubborn, taking charge when training his new recruits. He plays the role more like a military sergeant, which fits perfectly. His transformation as the film goes on works well, as he begins to see the guilt of his own actions. Alfre Woodard is excellent as his wife, who plays and intermediary role between Micah and his forward thinking son. Marius Weyers (The Gods Must be Crazy) fills an important gap as Van Tonder, Micah's superior who values his black peers and dislikes the position that Apartheid puts them in. These two men are not really friends, but we feel that they could be under different circumstances.
The scenery of South Africa is perfectly captured by the video transfer that Paramount has produced for this DVD edition. While it does show a slight amount of dirt and grain, I was very impressed with the overall clarity and richness of the image. The film boasts an impressive color palette, which leaps off the screen equally in the bright and dark scenes. There are no visible compression flaws whatsoever. The sound transfer is also solid, with clear dialogue, and sounds. The music is mixed into the rear channels, but few ambient noises have crossed over in the upmixing. The result is a slightly too subtle but overall pleasing listening experience.
The only extra feature is a commentary track with Director Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover, and Alfre Woodard. I would happily listen to Morgan Freeman talk about nothing for a couple hours. They discuss the process of making the film, including stories put into the script once they arrived in Africa and heard directly from South Africans who had lived through the conflict. Although more historical information on the disc would have been welcome, this exploration of the production is interesting.
Though it's a positive viewing experience, Bopha! is plagued by a few problems. While the main actors are excellent, some of the supporting characters don't stand up in comparison. Malcolm McDowell sleepwalks through his role, and some of the students are stiff.
Some of the visual elements are pedestrian. Although the cinematography is passable, it feels staged at times and isn't as immersing as it should be. The few beautiful shots aren't vibrant enough to do justice to the remarkable backdrop. The music is generic as well, sparse and not nearly as subtle as the script. The failings of these smaller elements make Bopha! feel like a television movie, even though great talent was involved in the production. It doesn't feel like a sympathetic white telling of a black story, but it does feel like an American telling of an African story. This is not a serious problem, but it prevents the film from being the powerhouse drama that it deserves to be.
There aren't enough movies depicting the situation during South African Apartheid. Although Bopha! isn't a definitive telling of this story, it does give us a much needed peek into the experience of black people who had become complacent in the colonial system. Micah's discovery of his role in the mistreatment of his own people is powerful, and the minor weaknesses in the crafting of the film shouldn't keep you from watching this solid disc.
Bopha! is free to carry on its fight for respect.
Review content copyright © 2005 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Director and Cast Commentary