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A look inside Hollywood and the movies : THE SAGA OF 'BOPHA!' : Apartheid Film With a New Slant

September 12, 1993|ELAINE DUTKA

Even for Hollywood, it was a bit of a tightrope act: A first-time producer (Lawrence Taubman) working with a first-time director (Morgan Freeman) operating on a modest budget ($11.6 million) in a Third World country (Zimbabwe) experiencing one its worst droughts in a century.

Still, "Bopha!," an anti-apartheid story of a black South African policeman forced to choose between duty and family, came in on time and under-budget. That the movie--starring Alfre Woodard and Danny Glover and scheduled for release by Paramount Pictures on Sept. 24--made it at all took more than a little luck.

"With 10,000 extras and more than 500 laborers, I felt like the mayor of a small village," Taubman recalls. "Any phone call could bear catastrophic news. The rivers running the turbines were so low we had regular brown-outs and blackouts. The fax machine and our computers blew. We had to go off the main grid and plug into our own generator--and, even so, had to send our editor back to the United States because the electricity was too sporadic for him to work."

The movie is the last lap in a seven-year odyssey on which Taubman embarked after seeing "Bopha!" staged at London's National Theater. From the outset, he saw it as a Christian redemption play: the story of a good man in an impossible situation who sees the errors of his ways in time to save his soul. And unlike most other American-made movies that have examined apartheid, the producer observes, this one is told from a black perspective.

"I respect 'A Dry White Season,' 'A World Apart' and 'Cry Freedom!,' " Taubman says, "but they reflected Hollywood's concern that audiences won't identify with black faces. They tackled the subject from the outside looking in, rather than from the inside out. 'Roots,' the most successful miniseries in TV history, would have been an abysmal failure if it were told from the vantage point of a white slave owner."

Distancing "Bopha!" from the lackluster box-office performance of its anti-apartheid predecessors was the biggest hurdle in getting it made. Even though Taubman sees it as a "family film" about inter-generational conflict, independent production companies and most of the majors were leery.

"I'd assembled what I thought was an incredible group of people--Morgan, Alfre, Danny, but what we needed was a black executive producer with clout," says Taubman. "When Sidney Poitier and Quincy Jones declined, a blind date of mine suggested I send it to Arsenio Hall, who was starting a film company on the Paramount lot. He read it on Sunday, we met on Monday and on Thursday we sat down with the studio executives. Paramount had been on the fence for over six months but Arsenio's support got them off."

Taubman's CineCity Pictures, meanwhile, is plunging into yet another tricky project--this one based on Dr. Peter Rutter's "Sex in the Forbidden Zone," a 1989 book dealing with women sexually harassed by men in positions of power. Though the two projects seem dissimilar, the producer says, "Both deal with people who are suffering or are displaced from the norm--people who have a lot to say."

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