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The Fire Next Time 

Though apartheid sanctioned cruel oppression of the black South African masses for decades, its desperate, inhuman application accelerated in its last years as the ruling white minority felt power slipping from its hands under the onslaught of worldwide condemnation. Phillip Noyce's Catch a Fire is the story of how a kind-hearted, family-oriented black man is radicalized when he's caught in racist South Africa's sadistic snare. Though set a quarter century in the past, it's a narrative with pointed implications for what's happening elsewhere in today's world.

Written by Shawn Slovo and based on actual events in the early 1980s, Catch a Fire is the story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke, who contributes a galvanizing, heart-wrenching performance). Chamusso regards himself as blessed and possesses an almost genetically happy heart. He loves his beautiful wife Precious (Bonnie Henna) and adores their two school-age daughters. He has worked hard at the Secunda oil refinery and has risen to a foreman's position. Though his work is blue collar, elsewhere in the world his professional achievements would have made him modestly prosperous, and that's how Patrick regards himself. He has a car, he can buy toys for his children at Christmas, and he and Precious can discuss the advantages and required sacrifices necessary for a new sofa. But his home is little more than a low-roofed shack in a sprawling, dusty ghetto of likewise depressing dwellings. The family has almost none of the modern appliances that working-class families in America and Europe can afford. And the home's only running water is a faucet in the backyard. Moreover, Patrick, like all black people in his country, is the subject of constant racist vileness by white people who treat him with condescension at best, contempt and implied threats of violence at worst.

Nonetheless, Patrick is a man of stature in his own community, better employed and more comfortable than most. He is the delighted volunteer coach of a pee-wee soccer team with hopes of winning a championship. When he can avoid interaction with white people, he is happy. But there is a small flaw in his past, a chink in judgment that, like the foam damage on a space shuttle, will catch embers from other forces and blow his life apart. A decade ago, perhaps, he fathered a child by another woman. We are never told whether this relationship predated Precious or was an act of infidelity. Whichever, the relationship itself is ended, but Patrick still tries to contribute to the support of his son and to visit him occasionally, activities that Precious has strictly forbidden. Patrick is with his son and his son's mother on the night a group of terrorists stage a raid on the Secunda oil refinery. Because he can't account for his whereabouts without Precious finding out, he's arrested as a perpetrator. While incarcerated, he's tortured. He's beaten and imprisoned in total darkness. He's dunked in water to simulate drowning in one of the "interrogation" techniques Vice President Dick Cheney has seemingly condoned for prisoners of the "war on terror" as a "no-brainer." Because Patrick is innocent, he has no secrets to reveal, but when he doesn't, the South African state security force, headed by Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), attempts to make Patrick talk by torturing Precious. This act of unmitigated evil spurs Patrick to confess to a crime he didn't commit. It also turns him into a revolutionary.

The last hour of Catch a Fire is the story of Patrick's training in insurrection and produces a pointedly odd and ultimately uncomfortable sentiment in the viewer. Outraged that an entrenched power would incarcerate innocent people without the benefit of legal representation, would subject them to incredible physical and mental brutality, Patrick comes to believe that such a state must be toppled -- immediately, and in the absence of other mechanisms -- by force of arms. To spark such a revolution, Patrick becomes a terrorist. And those of us in the audience, having witnessed his suffering, knowing the injustices of his treatment, root for his success, pant with relief when he slips apprehension, thrill when he plants a bomb.

Director Noyce nowhere invokes a reference to American policies in the aftermath of 9/11. No one mentions Abu Ghraib prison or Guantanamo Bay, President Bush's equivocations about the Geneva Conventions or compromised recent legislation that gives the executive branch unprecedented power to interrogate terrorists by whatever means it sees fit. But we don't have to work hard to recognize the parallels. Having seen events from the perspective of the tortured and those who care about him, we aren't long to wonder, as happened with Patrick Chamusso, how many new enemies we create for every one that extreme interrogation procedures manage to break or uncover. May the grace and astonishing beneficence, the humbling power to forgive of a man like Nelson Mandela, save us all from vengeful instincts which more often carry the day.

click to enlarge Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) endures the racial - oppression of South African apartheid but becomes - radicalized when he's tortured for a crime he didn't commit. - FOCUS FEATURES
  • Focus Features
  • Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) endures the racial oppression of South African apartheid but becomes radicalized when he's tortured for a crime he didn't commit.
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