The Inhuman Condition

A powerful 1969 anti-apartheid play from South Africa finally makes it to the screen

The renowned South African playwright Athol Fugard has one commanding subject -- his vivid social outcasts' lifelong confrontation with the oppression of apartheid and the nobility of their survival. In Boesman and Lena, written in 1969 as the third part of a dramatic trilogy that also included Blood Knot and Hello and Goodbye, Fugard addressed this obsession with terrific ferocity and even greater empathy. It's a crying shame it has taken three decades for an adaptation of the play to reach the screen, but now that it's finally here, take heart. Under the direction of the late John Berry, who died last year, it is a fluent and moving meditation on the human condition that sticks in the consciousness -- and the conscience.

Give credit to Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon, etc.) and Angela Bassett (What's Love Got to Do with It), a pair of ordinarily highly paid American movie stars who could easily have ignored the call to film a relatively humble play in South Africa. Instead, these notables obviously took on Fugard's work as a labor of love, and they may well serve to give the movie a wider audience than lesser-known actors could attract. Let's hope so.

Boesman and Lena's setting is a cold mud flat outside Cape Town, where the title characters have come to ground after being evicted earlier in the day from the ruins of their shantytown. Bedraggled and confused, these refugees show their distress in contrasting ways. Glowering Boesman raves and threatens his companion with violence, rage eating at his soul. Lena retreats into the past, calling up memories of happier days when she and Boesman could smile, when their children were still alive, when they had a home. "Where did the sun go?" she asks, but she has no answer. Like the tormented figures created by another great 20th-century playwright, Samuel Beckett, Boesman and Lena sink further and further into paralysis, their identities shattered, their prospects ever-worsening. Fugard's offstage villain, of course, is society itself -- an exclusionary society that has always regarded Boesman and Lena as half-human. Little wonder he is afflicted by self-hatred or that she can but dream.

Angela Bassett's brave, heartfelt performance in Boesman and Lena does honor to the Athol Fugard play on which the film is based.
Angela Bassett's brave, heartfelt performance in Boesman and Lena does honor to the Athol Fugard play on which the film is based.

"Who are you?" Lena demands, echoing the pessimistic depths of, say, Waiting for Godot.

"Who are you?" Boesman replies.

And there the play's quandary might remain, were it not for the thing that distinguishes Fugard from Beckett -- a stubborn belief that if the sun has disappeared, there may yet come a new dawn. As Boesman and Lena bicker -- Glover and Bassett mimic South African accents and diction, with passable results -- we are introduced to a third character, who is destined to subtly change their lives. He's an old, unnamed Xhosa tribesman (played by Willie Jonah) who speaks neither English nor Afrikaans, but the moment he materializes he begins to have a profound effect. While Boesman mocks and abuses the newcomer, Lena's instincts as a mother and a sister are reawakened, and she shares with him both her bread and her memories. Like the beloved dog she lost in her flight from the shantytown, the tribesman is "a new set of eyes." More than that, he reminds her what it means to be human. In Boesman, too, who detests himself for identifying with his oppressors, the old man reignites a spark.

The brave, heartfelt performances Glover and Bassett put in here do honor to the passion of Fugard's work (in 1961, Blood Knot was the first play ever performed in South Africa with a multiracial cast), and they are a fitting posthumous tribute to director Berry, who died last year at 82. Born in the Bronx, he worked with the young Orson Welles, brought Richard Wright's Native Son to the American stage in the '30s, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, took exile in France and formed an alliance with Fugard that lasted 40 years. Berry's most popular movie was 1974's Claudine, for which Diahann Carroll received an Academy Award nomination. That Boesman and Lena was his last public work is appropriate. It is certainly not the most "cinematic" film ever made, but the power of the play comes through with great force, and it serves to sum up Berry's social commitment, too. In the space of just 88 minutes, he gives us a rich, complex lesson in the terrors of oppression and the mysteries of human behavior that we can't soon forget.

 
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