Allegory, Film, and Criticism: Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena, starring Angela Bassett and Danny Glover

By Daniel Garrett

Boesman and Lena
Director: John Berry
Starring Angela Bassett and Danny Glover
Pathe-Primedia Pictures/Kino, 2000

About the film Boesman and Lena, starring Angela Bassett and Danny Glover, the critics Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, for the November 2000 Spirituality and Health, wrote in an online review: “Athol Fugard’s play, which was presented on Broadway in 1970 starring James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee, has been made into a rigorous film adapted and directed by John Berry. It ambitiously delves into heady matters such as freedom and truth while also probing the loneliness, loss, and bigotry of two down-and-out Africans living under apartheid in South Africa.” I had seen the film during its brief run in Manhattan—if I recall, it was shown at Lincoln Plaza, near Lincoln Center. The film opened in early November 2000 and was shown at only about eight theaters nationally, and closed December 21, 2000; and was reported to have made less than fifty thousand dollars; and was released on digital video discs in May 2001. I told a friend that it was a film that more people should see, though I knew that a film about homeless South Africans did not sound like a delightful time.

A. O. Scott reviewed the film (New York Times, September 23, 2000) during its appearance at the New York Film Festival, and said that the director John Berry, “a survivor of the Hollywood blacklist who died just as work on the film was being completed, uses the natural luminescence of his stars to emphasize just how cruel the couple’s fate has been and also to bring a measure of cinematic life to Mr. Fugard’s somewhat wordy allegorical play.” I did not find Boesman and Lena too wordy, or distractingly allegorical—but then I expect intelligence and meaning, and even imagination, in conversation and in art. I thought Boesman and Lena was a film for which Angela Bassett should have received the highest commendations; and I admired Danny Glover’s performance.

“Together, they set off sparks. Both belong to that rare breed of actor, the kind possessing an intellectual ferocity to match the physical one,” David Ng wrote, when reviewing the film in connection with the film festival, for the online Images film journal. Angela Bassett has been acclaimed a great actress; and she has appeared in Passion Fish, Malcolm X, What’s Love Got to Do with It, Strange Days, Waiting to Exhale, Contact, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, The Score, Sunshine State, and Mr. 3000—and while I admire and like her performances in several of these films, especially in Malcolm X, What’s Love, and Strange Days—I do not think Angela Bassett has been better than she is in Boesman and Lena. It’s a crying shame that more people haven’t seen the film.

Some of the reviews were dismissive, making the film sound like work to watch: I thought the film full of fact, feeling, and understanding: and consequently rewarding. The matter raises many questions—among them, if a black actress’s best work can occur only when exploring black experience, and, if black experience is so distinct, and sometimes so painful, that when presented in art it doesn’t attract an audience, how can one know or measure that actress’s artistry? As the Brussats note, the film follows the bulldozing of the ramshackle home of Boesman (Glover) and Lena (Bassett), and their homeless trek, during which we see some of their memories—not all of which are bitter (they made a real home early in their time together, despite the viciousness of the imposed poverty of apartheid), but as time has gone on Boesman has become abusive and Lena seems disturbed. Lena may say that Boesman’s heart has dried up, but her attempts to keep her own heart alive seems to have kept her open to pain—and her openness and her pain seem to be what Boesman strikes out against. The Brussats say, “Boesman and Lena plumbs the anger, regret, low self-esteem, and self-destructiveness that often accompany poverty and homelessness. This story, although set in South Africa, could be told of millions of other couples all over the world.” How can we know that if we refuse to see?

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African,, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen,,,, Option,, The Review of Contemporary Fiction,, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism. Garrett’s review of Boesman and Lena first appeared as part of his long piece entitled “ICONOGRAPHY: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” (, 2006). Daniel Garrett’s web log at, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail addresses are and