Catch a Fire
Focus Features
Directed by Phillip Noyce
Starring Derek Luke, Tim Robbins, and Bonnie Mbuli
Rated PG-13

Fears of terrorism. Demonization of an “other.” Suspects detained without explanation, held in isolation, refused attorneys and habeas corpus. No, it’s not America in 2006, it’s South Africa in 1980, and boy, does it burn to see this true tale of torture and oppression, of radicalization and rebellion from a regime so malevolent, even pathological, play like an object lesson for us today here in the United States. It’s enough to shock you into realizing — if you haven’t already — how unkindly the future is going to look back upon us. When someone makes a movie a quarter of a century from now about the American occupation of Iraq, it’s going to look like Catch a Fire, and it’s going to be enraging.

How does an innocent man with nary a thought of committing a crime become an insurgent, a “terrorist”? For Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), it happens when he’s arrested after a bombing at the coal mine where he’s a supervisor — we know he had nothing to do with it, we know he was elsewhere at the time, but his alibi, for all its truth, is shaky, and the white South African police, in particular antiterrorism specialist Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), are disinclined to believe him. He is tortured, in more ways than one, until Vos is convinced that he had nothing to do with the bombing. He’s free, but Chamusso’s life is ruined: Vos’s mistrust has infected Patrick’s wife, and even more importantly, Chamusso’s complacency is shattered. Where once he was willing to smooth over the injustices of his world, now he has, well, caught the fire of revolt. He joins the African National Congress — freedom fighters to some, terrorists to others — and becomes precisely what Vos had feared he was.

It’s fear, of course, that’s at the root of the social and political disaster of South Africa at the time. Much is made, in the script by Shawn Slovo, real-life daughter of one of the (white) leaders of the ANC, of the inevitability of the eventual overthrow of the white minority by the black majority. Vos is the first one to mention this in the film, in fact, and he is a man driven by fear. He’s not quite the sociopath his colleagues are; they would have been content to decide that Chamusso was the terrorist they were looking for when they arrested him, just for the sheer thrill of hanging a black man. Yet Vos is at least concerned with getting the real perpetrator off the streets. But that doesn’t spring from a sense of justice but from a genuine terror for his family — he’s trying to put off as long as possible the inevitable loss of the extraordinary privilege his family enjoys at the expense of others who are increasingly angry about this upside-side-down state.

I’d never heard Tim Robbins do an accent before, but he pulls off the Afrikaans beautifully. He swaggers as Vos, but lets us see how shaky his confidence is. And yet there is no compassion, on the part of Slovo or director Phillip Noyce — whose Rabbit-Proof Fence a few years ago was another startling film about rebellion against howling injustice — and there’s no excuse offered for Vos. He is also, thank the gods of satisfying storytelling (if not those that may watch over the real world), stubbornly unrepetent until the end; he gets no reprieve, undergoes no Hollywood change of heart.

The film belongs to Derek Luke, though, as Chamusso. The physical torture he suffers is nothing to what he endures emotionally and psychologically, as he barrels through multiple realignments of his worldview, and Luke (Antwone Fisher) brings a power both fragile and heartrending to a man forced to confront demons both internal and external, which he would likely have continued tiptoeing around his entire life.

If there’s a message to Catch a Fire, it might be: Oppressors and occupiers beware, and know that whatever you dish out will come back to you tenfold. It leaves you wondering — knowing how the white minority has fared in South Africa after apartheid — whether the people of Iraq will ever feel the same way about America.