South African Drama `Bopha!' Seems To Miss A Sense Of Outrage

Movie review

XX "Bopha!," with Danny Glover, Alfre Woodard, Maynard Eziashi, Malcolm McDowell. Directed by Morgan Freeman, from a script by Brian Bird and John Wierick. Lewis & Clark, Newmark. "PG-13" - Parental guidance because of violence, subject matter. -------------------------------------------------------------------

Good intentions are famous for paving the road to hell, but more often they just lead to well-meaning tedium.

That's the case with this surprisingly uninvolving drama about a black South African family destroyed by apartheid in 1980. "Bopha!" is a Zulu word that means "arrest" to the South African police and "resist" to the country's black population, and the movie means to address the impossible position of being both black and a policeman in South Africa.

Alas, it doesn't so much dramatize this moral dilemma as drain it of its tragic power through repetition. Based on Percy Mtwa's semi-autobiographical play about the conflicts between a black policeman, his brother and the policeman's activist son, the script is the first big-screen project of a screenwriting duo, Brian Bird and John Wierick, who have extensively reworked the material.

Dropping the brother's role while adding the boy's mother, Bird and Wierick have shifted the focus of the story, and they may have diluted the original's tension. It's difficult to say without having seen the play, which is rarely performed. (It had its widest exposure via an hour-long 1987 PBS documentary, also called "Bopha!," but that used only scenes from the play.)

In her L.A. Times review of the stage production, Sylvie Drake wrote that the play "reverberates with good humor and bursts with self-affirmation." When Seattle Times freelancer Karen Mathieson reviewed the Earth Players' touring production here in 1988, she wrote that "its humor is expressed not only in the lines, but also in vocal sound effects, expressions and gestures, and the tremendous kinetic energy of the actors."

Humor is mostly missing from the film version, and there isn't much kinetic energy either. It begins with a limp horror-movie-style episode in which a collaborator is rewarded with a "fiery necklace" - a burning tire around his neck - and in a sense that leaves the story with nowhere to go. How long before the policeman at the center of the story faces a similar fate?

Danny Glover plays this tortured, unsympathetic man, but neither he nor the script flesh out the role enough to make his self-justifications understandable. It's one of Glover's few uninteresting performances. He seems cramped and defeated, as does Malcolm McDowell, who is disappointingly one-note as a South African neo-Nazi.

Oddly enough, the most passionate performance is by Alfre Woodard as the mother. The screenwriters don't give her much to do, but first-time director Morgan Freeman allows her enough screen time to create a tragic character whose gradual loss of self-esteem is like an open wound. He also gets solid work from Maynard Eziashi as the boy.

"Bopha!" begins to connect with the true horror of the story only toward the end, and by then it's too late. The movie simply lacks the sense of outrage that propels such powerful anti-apartheid movies as Euzhan Palcy's "A Dry White Season" and Chris Menges' "A World Apart."