Based on the play by Percy Mtwa, Bopha! (PG-13) transfers a standard father-son melodrama into Moroka Township, South Africa, circa 1980. Danny Glover plays Micah Mangena, a South African police sergeant whose unbending fealty to the law marks him as the quintessential good soldier. It also marks him as a fool, blind to the fact that his fellow blacks loathe him and that even his son (Maynard Eziashi) has joined the struggle to end apartheid. With the arrest of a prominent activist (Malick Bowens) and the appearance of two members of the secret police (Malcolm McDowell and Robin Smith), the fuse is lit for an explosion in which Micah’s illusions will be brutally blasted away.
The township’s-eye view of apartheid is rare for mainstream movies, yet Bopha! (Zulu for ”detention” or ”arrest”) keeps jerking its knee in the direction of Hollywood. James Horner’s score is orchestrated hokum (when the occasional African pop song wanders onto the soundtrack, the movie jumps to life), and McDowell’s sneering secret policeman is straight out of a WWII B-flick. And though Glover fashions stoic human drama out of Micah’s downfall, he never takes the extra step into the grander Shakespearean tragedy that’s built right into the role.
That said, director Morgan Freeman rights his ship in Bopha!’s heart-wrenchingly violent final half hour. McDowell disappears from the scene (goodbye to bad ham). Alfre Woodard, achingly honest throughout as Micah’s wife, Rosie, comes into her own. More important, a feeling for jeopardized human beings at the moment of grabbing their destiny sweeps to the fore. There’s sorrow here to fill a thousand Hollywood movies—and in the end, it swamps the boundaries of movie convention. B-