A sizzling performance by Derek Luke ignites this story about Patrick Chamusso, a South African oil refinery worker who became caught up in the fight against apartheid.
Chamusso who did his best to stay out of trouble and care for his family. But as Trotsky said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Wrongly accused of a terrorist attack at the refinery, he is captured and tortured. But it is when his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna) is also tortured that he becomes committed to doing anything he can — anything that is necessary — to bring down the racist regime. He leaves his family and goes to Mozambique to join the rebellious ANC forces and under their direction returns to plant a bomb in the refinery.
Tim Robbins plays secret police chief Nic Vos. Like Chamusso, fear for his family leads him to do terrible things. “Twenty-three million blacks to three million whites. We’re the underdogs. We’re the ones under attack,” he says. He has convinced himself that he is not a monster because he draws a line; he will not hold a man he knows to be innocent. But he is willing to torture people he knows to be innocent. He does not seem to do it because he thinks he will get information from them or frighten them away from fighting the system. He seems to do it to convince himself that these people are less than human. He does it to convince himself that he must do it.
If Vos is not a monster, Chamusso is not a saint. He has no alibi the first time he is captured because he was with an old girlfriend, the mother of his child, and his wife may leave him if she finds out. His pride and fear and her jealousy lead to imprisonment, torture, separation, and rebellion. Chamusso emphasizes that the acts he undertakes are designed to blow up equipment, not to injure anyone. But one side’s freedom fighter is the other side’s terrorist, and many people on both sides are killed. The worst betrayal Chamusso faces is not racism but something much more personal. And the biggest challenge he faces is not racism — or fear, or torture, or guns — but forgiveness.
Luke’s African accent is understated and his effortless grace shows real star power. He is utterly convincing and utterly compelling as an easy-going man devoted to his family who is transformed into someone who believes he has nothing left to lose. His performance is all the more wrenching because he resists the temptation to showboat. There are no heroics here, no grimaces of resignation and dedication. His emotions are complex, but they are pure.
Parents should know that this movie includes disturbing scenes of torture and terrorism. Many characters are killed. There is brief strong language and some drinking. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of the agonizing consequences of apartheid.
Families who see this film should talk about the origins of apartheid and the extraordinary story of Nelson Mandela and the non-violent transition to democracy. They should learn about South Africa’s pioneering Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a tribunal that focused on integrity and validation rather than retribution. What did Vos want most? What did Chamusso want? How did each explain to themselves and their families what they were doing? There is more information about the real-life Patrick Chamusso here.
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Cry Freedom, with Denzel Washington as Steven Biko, Sarafina, Master Harold…And the Boys, and Hotel Rwanda.