A "Power' failure that's disruptive

Published Apr. 10, 1992|Updated Oct. 11, 2005

What's so infuriating about The Power of One is that it's such an enthralling, yet brainless, piece of anti-apartheid propaganda.

Rocky and The Karate Kid director John G. Avildsen turns a white boy's struggle on behalf of his black brethren into The Apartheid Kid.

Engrossing, noble and handsomely photographed, The Power of One also is monumentally ill-conceived. This isn't merely another well-meaning tale of white folks moaning about black people's suffering. The pink-cheeked, blue-eyed young boxer, P.K. (Stephen Dorff), literally evolves into a Christ figure. "The Rainmaker," the natives call him, as he struggles to unite rival tribes in their struggle for better treatment.

In The Power of One, nearly all Afrikaners (whites of Dutch, French and German heritage) are fascists as well as racists. Every black is an anonymous, quietly anguished saint. The few English remaining in South Africa stand for sanity and reason, but they're hopelessly outnumbered by the white supremacist descendants of the Boer settlers.

True to The Avildsen Formula, P.K. is an underdog. He's taunted by schoolmates for being English. But then he gains karma, knowledge and a knockout punch from a succession of black and white mentors.

When P.K. enters the ring, he's not fighting for honor or title. He's fighting for nothing less than an end to racism.

P.K. accomplishes this _ I kid you not _ by beating a black man in an illegal fight and then jogging with his opponent (Alois Moyo) through the streets of Pretoria. P.K. also convinces his headmaster (John Gielgud, slumming) to allow him to teach blacks to read in his school after dark.

But this is jumping well ahead of Robert Mark Kamen's adaptation of Bryce Courtland's book, which begins with P.K.'s birth and ends in 1948, just before South Africa's strict apartheid laws were passed.

The opening segments are truly lyrical, with P.K. narrating and the Masibemunye Bulawayo Choir singing as Avildsen captures the wildlife on the hot grassy ranges at sunset.

P.K. grows up on a farm where his mother treats the black help as part of the family. P.K. plays with black children and learns their language. Then, he is packed off to Boarding School Hell where sadistic pro-Nazi Afrikaner youths urinate on him and murder his pet chicken because of his English ancestry.

These scenes are truly horrific, though mere child's play considering what P.K. encounters next.

Orphaned shortly before World War II, P.K.'s upbringing and schooling is entrusted to a famous German concert pianist and horticulturist who is sent to an internment camp when hostilities erupt. P.K. visits Doc (Armin Mueller-Stahl) daily for lessons and to bring Doc's ration of cacti for the prison garden.

Doc thinks it wise for P.K. to learn self defense, so he introduces him to the South African equivalent of karate master Miyaki in The Karate Kid series. The bald-headed black prisoner Geel Piet (Morgan Freeman) coaches P.K. in the finer points of ducking, weaving and combination punches _ the Rocky routine _ and P.K. reciprocates by sneaking Geel fresh leaves of tobacco.

A sadistic guard regularly beats Geel, and at one point, makes him eat excrement. This mistreatment only solidifies Geel's resolve to unite his brothers with P.K.'s and Doc's help. (This reliance on whites ignores the fact that South Africa's oppressed black majority has fought apartheid largely alone.)

During the ensuing post-war years, P.K. excels in high school and falls in love with the daughter of a racist Afrikaner politician. P.K. begins his illegal activities _ boxing in the townships, educating blacks, making like Romeo to woo scarlet-haired Fay (Maria Marais) on her balcony _ all with tragic results.

The Power of One is as manipulative as anything Avildsen has directed. Yet, its raw power, unflagging drive and in-your-face depiction of unspeakable brutality meted out against blacks have undeniable visceral appeal.

Avildsen recognizes that white suburbanites find it easier to identify with a handsome white teen-ager than an older black leader. However, when the truth is so stirring and there are so many black leaders worth depicting, it seems ludicrous to invent well-meaning white boys.

The fine performances by Dorff and younger P.K.s Guy Witcher and Simoin Fenton, and sturdy supports by Mueller-Stahl, Freeman and Gielgud are subverted by the one-dimensionality of their characters.

The Power of One emerges as a broadly painted piece of rhetoric. It means well and has an undeniable dramatic pull, but its relegation of blacks to the sidelines and its creation of a white savior are unforgivable.


The Power of One

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Director: John G. Avildsen

Cast: Stephen Dorff, Armin Mueller-Stahl, John Gielgud, Morgan Freeman

Screenplay: Robert Mark Kamen, based on the novel by Bryce Courtenay

Rating: PG-13; violence, profanity

Running time: 126 minutes