Largely unheralded and unseen, THE POWER OF ONE is a rousing historical epic from director John G. Avildsen that provides a rare look at South African culture, history and politics. The story concerns an orphaned British youngster who becomes an unlikely hero by uniting the Black tribes of
South Africa against their repressive Afrikaner rulers.
British South African PK (played at age seven by Guy Witcher, age twelve by Simon Fenton, and age eighteen by Stephen Dorff) gets an ugly taste of intolerance early in life on the eve of WWII. Sent by his widowed mother to an Afrikaner boarding school, he becomes the object of abuse by older
Afrikaner boys led by Jaapie Botha (Robbie Bulloch). PK is a victim of the old enmity between the British and the Afrikaners--an enmity heightened by Adolf Hitler's promise to drive the British from South Africa. When his mother dies, PK returns home for the funeral and confesses his problems at
school to his Black nanny (Nomadlozi Kubheka), who calls in a witch doctor to help the boy find the confidence to overcome his fears of returning to school.
PK's only remaining relative, a grandfather he barely knows, later takes PK from the school and puts him under the tutelage of family friend Doc (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a renowned German pianist prevented from returning home by the war. Doc is imprisoned by the British under an alien-control act,
but PK is allowed unlimited visits to him and winds up spending most of his time in the prison. There he also befriends Black prisoner Geel Piet (Morgan Freeman), who teaches PK how to box well enough to compete on an inter-prison boxing team. PK also becomes admired by the prison's multi-tribal
Black population for resisting the racism of the British and Afrikaners and treating the members of the various tribes as equals.
Attempting to promote inter-tribal harmony, PK and Doc stage a concert at which the tribes sing together. Doc writes the music and Geel Piet the words, which criticize the white oppressors. Even though the songs are sung in the prisoners' native language, a sadistic prison guard recognizes the
intent of the lyrics and murders Geel Piet.
At secondary school, PK earns the admiration of headmaster St. John (Sir John Gielgud), who promotes PK and his best friend Hoppie Gruenwald (Ian Roberts) for admission to Oxford. At a boxing match, PK spots and is smitten by Maria (Fay Masterson). He pursues her, despite the opposition of her
philosopher father, Professor Daniel Marais (Marius Weyers), whose ideas form the basis of apartheid. PK also runs afoul of Botha, now a member of the state's brutal internal security forces, when he and Maria organize an underground school to teach South African Blacks to read and write with the
help of Black boxing champion Gideon Duma (Alois Moyo). Maria is murdered by Botha's security forces during a raid on the school, but Botha is later killed by Duma while trying to kill PK. After some pursuading by Duma, PK turns down Oxford to help his fellow boxer establish more schools
throughout the Black community in South Africa.
Director John G. Avildsen (ROCKY, THE KARATE KID) has been criticized for this latest of many attempts to tell the South African story from the point of view of a white character. Nonetheless, THE POWER OF ONE is a compelling historical fiction that uses the story of its protagonist to make its
complex historical framework come grippingly alive.
As a British boy, PK is able to see both sides of the South African experience. He experiences prejudice firsthand, yet enjoys far more social mobility than a Black protagonist could have. His earliest education comes from his Black nanny, who instills in him a respect for Black South African
culture that later motivates his resistance to aparthied. At his Afrikaner school, he sees how racist ideology is promulgated by religious teachings that argue the inferiority of the Blacks in Biblical terms. Through his friendship with Doc, he experiences the imperialism of his own people--more
benign, but no less repugnant than the racism of the Afrikaners. Through his friendship with Geel Piet, he gains understanding of how inter-tribal conflicts can hinder the Black community's organized resistance to the white government. Through his conflict with Botha and romance with Maria, he
sees the human faces behind apartheid: Botha is conditioned to hatred by a brutal upbringing, while the innocent Maria can see the truth of racial justice despite her own background.
All these diverse narrative strands find a strong focus in PK, a sensitive, intelligent and articulate narrator. He's also a bona fide hero. Directing Robert Mark Kamen's flawless adaptation of Bryce Courtenay's novel, Avildsen gives PK an interior life of grief, loss and loneliness that gives his
heroism a moving poignancy.
The cast is as good as it looks on paper, with shining lead performances from Dorff and Masterson. The rousing soundtrack combines adaptations of African music, original music by Hans Zimmer and songs by South African star Johnny Clegg. Dean Semler's cinematography is rich, evocative and full of
epic sweep. By necessity, the story is almost unremittingly downbeat, but THE POWER OF ONE is nonetheless a powerful, engrossing and enlightening tale that should not be missed. (Violence, profanity.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Largely unheralded and unseen, THE POWER OF ONE is a rousing historical epic from director John G. Avildsen that provides a rare look at South African culture, history and politics. The story concerns an orphaned British youngster who becomes an unlikely h… (more)