The trenches of South Africa in the 1960s, in the grip of apartheid—the equivalent of the American Civil War fought on foreign soil—continue to provide fertile material for movies fueled by the flames of morality, conscience and the struggle for human rights. Along the way, new heroes are discovered and old oversights corrected. The latest is Black Butterflies, a footnote to history about the rebellious, courageous and tragic life of South African poet Ingrid Jonker (triumphantly played by Carice van Houten, the rangy, riveting Dutch star who skyrocketed to world acclaim in Paul Verhoeven’s World War II saga, Black Book). She’s not the only person to defy the government and speak out against racism during apartheid, but her story is unique because the odds she faced to improve conditions and ameliorate the fate of the disgraced country she loved were overwhelming. As the daughter of Abraham Jonker, the powerful, mean-spirited minister of censorship, she had no one to turn to for approval. Understandably, she became an obsessive romantic with an intense passion for the kind of consuming love that always eluded her, further alienating her stern and reproachful father by moving through the bohemian literary circles of Cape Town, writing poetry from her heart, and sleeping with an assortment of other writers, all married and emotionally unattainable. Ingrid was not entirely likeable, and the movie makes no attempt to gild the lily. She had a talent for writing and a reckless spirit that antagonized critics and challenged conventions, but she was also an irresponsible mother with a child she often neglected, rejecting the security her husband offered for their daughter and eschewing respectability, while the baby slept on the floors of dirty hotel rooms. Tortured by the social injustice directed at black children while raising her own child in squalor, her priorities were screwy, yet she dragged both her baby and her typewriter around wherever she went, turning out so much memorable prose that her talent did not go unnoticed. Morose, tough-minded yet psychologically fragile, she was often compared, for obvious reasons, to her self-destructive contemporary American counterpart, Sylvia Plath. But she lived by her own rules, draining her lovers and enraging her father, who disagreed with her opposing political views that embarrassed him publicly and remained rife with frustration in his failed attempts to control her privately. Watching her squirm restlessly through the turbulence of the oppressive racist government he supported, he eventually drove her to a grim destiny with alcoholism and mental illness in an asylum in Amsterdam.
It’s not a pretty story, not always well served by an awkward narrative. But accomplished director Paula van der Oest, whose film Zus & Zo was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2003, fleshes out the shadows and conflicting mood swings that made Ingrid Jonger such a mercurial character. With her dark, sensitive but probing eyes and her arresting body language, you can’t take your off Ms. van Houten, who enlivens every scene, in contrast with the suffocating rigidity of Rutger Hauer as Abraham Jonker—cold, deeply prejudiced, convinced blacks are intellectually inferior and banning all their attempts to write truthfully about the experience of segregation. Mr. Hauer adds another laurel to his already esteemed reputation as the most versatile actor in the Dutch film industry. They are ably abetted by Ireland’s Liam Cunningham as novelist Jack Cope, the one great love of Ingrid’s life. While she was locked away in a mental hospital, he published her first book of poems, which her own father tried to censor before disowning her forever. The combination of acclaim and her own father’s terminal repudiation began a downward spiral that led to suicide. Rewards came late, but her prizes and accomplishments are not forgotten. Three decades after her death Nelson Mandela recited one of her poems in his first speech at the opening of the South African parliament in 1994. Today, there are Afrikaners who have her poems tattooed on their backs and others who swear she speaks to them from the grave. The title Black Butterflies is excerpted from her poem describing the bodies of black children littering an apartheid landscape after a massacre.
Neither another bland biopic about a self-destructive artist nor an historical scrapbook about a country in the grip of slavery, Black Butterflies is a dark, moving depiction of the life and death of a brave rebellious, idiosyncratic woman who made significant strides toward changing the world around her and paid a heavy toll for her passion. I found it immensely gratifying.
Running TIME 100 minutes
Written by Greg Latter
Directed by Paula van der Oest
Starring Carice van Houten, Rutger Hauer and Liam Cunningham