Social consciousness

Domestic drama is set against a backdrop of apartheid

Angela Bassett and Danny Glover get in touch with some very non-Hollywood emotions in John Berry's Boesman & Lena, about two homeless South Africans whose lives have been degraded by poverty and the myriad injustices of apartheid. Their squatters' town razed by the white man's bulldozers, the couple set out on the road with their meager possessions piled on their backs.
Adapted from the 1969 play by noted South African dramatist Athol Fugard (Master Harold and the Boys), Boesman & Lena moves between the past and present as the wasted, broken Lena recalls her earlier, happier days with Boesman before the transformative death of their 6-month-old child, before homelessness and before the vicious, abusive feuding that now defines their lives.
It often feels like a cliché in stories of oppressed people, that male brutality is "explained" as a consequence of a loss of self. Boesman, in this familiarly lefty cause and effect, has had his masculinity and pride so completely destroyed by racism and poverty that he lashes out at the most convenient punching bag, his wife Lena.
"We're white man's rubbish," Boesman broods. "We're made of it now. We've been thrown away." Boesman's one remaining expression of power and strength in the junk heap of their lives, of cobbled together shanty huts and an existence toted from town to town without rest, seems to be his power over Lena. For her part, Lena seems to thrive from provoking Boesman — her identity so cloudy and adrift she seems to yearn for some grounding and affirmation of her existence, even if it is a violent one. When another homeless, darker South African Xhosa tribesman (Willie Jonah) wanders onto their campsite, tensions between the couple reach a boiling point. Lena fusses and coos over and tends to this symbolic replacement for their dead child, protecting him from Boesman's rage as she feeds him water and bread by the fireside.
Boesman & Lena is directed by one of old Hollywood's representatives of social consciousness, John Berry. Ratted out by Edward Dmytryk, who fingered Berry as a Commie sympathizer, Berry's successful film career in the 1950s was essentially destroyed by the notorious House of Un-American Activities Committee. With his career in Hollywood over, Berry fled to France where he worked in the theater and on occasion traveled back to America for film projects both reputable (as with 1974's Claudine) and less so (The Bad News Bears Go to Japan). Boesman & Lena marks a full-circle return to the socially engaged Berry and a respectable final effort before his death at the film's completion at age 82.
Despite its star power, Boesman & Lena hasn't exactly taken American art houses by storm, in large part due to its unpleasant subject matter, glancing on abuse, poverty, racism and alcoholism. Boesman & Lena is often unrelentingly dour and heavy, as it unfolds at the impromptu campsite in the mud flats outside Capetown where the couple set up their temporary home, gather wood for a fire and erect a shelter of scrap metal and wood, all the while engaging in the most bitter, poisoned banter. And yet, Berry's film merits attention for refusing to pacify or reassure, even despite some expected, overly theatrical dramatics.
Take away the edge-of-the-Earth post-apocalyptic setting and you have domestic melodrama of the archetypal sort, about a relationship eating itself up from the inside, reminiscent of other poisoned couples from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Husbands and Wives. Glover and Bassett deliver impassioned performances as Boesman and Lena, though they never fail to remind the audience, with each dramatic crescendo and furious gesture, that this is acting of the highest order. Something artificial lingers, some remnant of the stage, in Berry's film, and with it that peculiar self-consciousness of two actors aware that they have juicy, career-defining performances on their hands.
There are worthy themes within Boesman & Lena, but perhaps one is too aware of their worthiness. The drama often feels transparent in its assertion of the consequences of racism. Like the old-school moralizing of Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones, Fugard and Berry's script manages to both elevate and cater to our expectations of what socially committed artworks should look and feel like.