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Arsenio Seeks Expert Advice on 'Bopha!' : Movie: Nelson Mandela is invited to a research screening of the talk show host's film about apartheid.

August 21, 1993|JANE GALBRAITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine conducting a movie research screening with Nelson Mandela as the test audience.

As far as Arsenio Hall figured, who other than the African National Congress leader could best judge the authenticity of "Bopha!"--the talk show host's debut film as an executive producer--than someone who has lived, breathed and fought apartheid all his life.

"I knew he was coming to Los Angeles. I invited him to watch the movie and he accepted," Hall said of Mandela's recent stopover where he was feted by some of the entertainment industry's biggest names--and later invited to the Paramount lot as a guest of Hall's. When it was over, Mandela relayed his sentiments: the movie was "very powerful."

Hall's enthusiasm couldn't hurt. This picture is hardly feel-good fare.

"Bopha!" is the story about the South Africa police and its practice of hiring blacks to enforce white minority rule in the townships, focusing upon one officer's battles with his own rebellious son. Based on a play by Percy Mtwa, it stars Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard and also marks the directorial debut of Morgan Freeman. The film opens in limited release on Sept. 24.

"Everyone figured I'd do a comedy like 'Coming to America.' I asked myself 'why?' when I just wanted to do something that I could be proud of," said Hall.

The movie version is actually devoid of comic relief, unlike the three-character play--the title has a duel meaning in Zulu of both resist and arrest--that the New York Times labeled lackluster when it was first staged at Lincoln Center in 1986 but the Los Angeles Times thought wonderful when mounted a year later at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Told of it by Quincy Jones, who produced the movie musical "Sarafina!" that also is based on an anti-apartheid-themed stage production, Hall was turned on to its dramatic story line from watching a BBC documentary on the production and a Sidney Poitier-narrated PBS docudrama. Having not yet exercised his option to produce movies at Paramount, where he has an overall deal, Hall thought "Bopha!" a perfect first feature. But then-production president Brandon Tartikoff, Hall recalls, didn't see much commercial potential in the project.

Paramount's Barry London, president of distribution and a friend of Hall's since the days he co-hosted "Solid Gold," pushed Tartikoff to agree to fund the picture if it could be made for $8 million. Tartikoff was swayed. The Arsenio Hall Communications, Ltd. production was soon shooting on location in Zimbabwe.

"Bopha!" struck Hall, he said, on two fronts.

"My father and I fought a lot. He was a Baptist preacher and a Nixon Republican. My mother was a Kennedy Democrat and I was a chip off my mother's block," he said. And, like the Glover character who becomes estranged from his son, Hall said he and his mother eventually separated from Mr. Hall.Of racism, whether here in America or "thousands of miles away in South Africa . . . there are similarities," he said.

Hall equates African-American Uncle Toms to be "little different" from the kind of character Glover plays in "Bopha!"--spying on his own people, assisting the white Afrikaner secret police in arresting peaceful black organizers and not being trusted by either race.

"Black people kill so many black people in our cities. . . . I say let's stop the killing. Have respect first for your fellow man," he said, echoing many of the same sentiments that he expressed to residents of South Central Los Angeles over the airwaves in the post-riot confusion last year. "There's power in unity."

Ever hopeful, Hall said he hopes the message of the movie will translate to box office success: "I'm going to assume people will be affected and moved as Nelson Mandela was."

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