In 1980, blacks in South Africa are struggling under white oppression due to the government policy of apartheid. To fight back, members of the military wing of the ANC (African National Congress) carry out attacks intended to embarrass and eventually overthrow the government, returning equal rights to the nation's 22 million blacks. The events of Catch a Fire are based on the real life of Patrick Chamusso, a man who turned to ANC insurgency after being arrested and tortured for a crime he didn't commit.
Early on in the film, Chamusso is satisfied to keep his head down as a foreman at the Secunda Oil Refinery, the world's largest coal-to-oil operation. Avoiding politics, he lives a simple life with his wife and two young daughters and enjoys coaching a soccer team of neighborhood kids. On a day he calls in sick to work (to take his team to a soccer match), the refinery is bombed. As one of the few people with access to the part of the plant attacked, Chamusso is rounded up by members of a white anti-terrorist police organization headed by Nic Vos. Held and tortured for days, Chamusso refuses to admit to the attack until the police involve his family in the questioning. To spare them, Chamusso gives a false confession, but he gets the details wrong. Vos realizes Chamusso is innocent and releases him.
The experience changes Chamusso. Vos and Co. have given him a reason to join the ANC and help with its efforts to cripple the apartheid regime.
With a strong sense of righteous indignation, Catch a Fire reveals some of the evil practiced against the black community by the white-run South African government under apartheid. Onscreen, the particular ANC group that Chamusso joins seeks to wreak havoc on government installations, but they insist that nobody be harmed in the process, setting them apart from other ANC groups willing to kill for their cause.
The film's most deeply positive message comes at the end, when Chamusso responds to freed ANC leader Nelson Mandela's teaching that a man can only be free when he is willing to forgive. The real-life Chamusso is shown expressing his own forgiveness of Vos and others. Further, he and his wife are shown using their own home as an orphanage for dozens of kids left parentless by AIDS.
As noted, the spiritual concept of forgiveness is heralded as the film concludes. "Kaffir," used once in the film as a slur against a black man, means heathen, or unbeliever. So it's worth mentioning that absent from this film's depiction is that the shameful policy of apartheid was propagated, in part, by whites who wrongly claimed the authority of the Christian church and the Bible to support their racist views. (Even since the fall of apartheid, many in South Africa remain suspicious of Christianity because of the proclaimed beliefs of those who oppressed them.)
Chamusso's relationship with his wife is strained by the fact that he has had an affair. He insists that it's over, but she struggles with forgiveness and jealousy (especially when she suspects he might have a child by the other woman). The married couple are shown kissing and in bed together. Chamusso is also seen kissing the other woman.
Black men are shot and beaten by the white police. Chamusso and others are tortured. Most of this occurs offscreen, but we do see Chamusso being held under water, getting hoisted and carried by his arms behind his back, and being left for days handcuffed in a windowless room. We also see his face bloodied and beaten. In what may be the film's most difficult scene, we hear the sounds of a man being brutally beaten while his young nephew is forced to watch.
One of Chamusso's friends is killed while undergoing the same kind of interrogation Chamusso suffers through. Chamusso's wife is also beaten and tortured; we see her bruised, cut and bleeding face. In a raid, a group of insurgents are gunned down by police; several police are killed in the return fire. A member of the ANC is forced off the road in his car and eventually shot in the leg. Saboteurs' bombs ignite the refinery on two occasions; nobody is hurt.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word is said (and printed in a subtitle). There are also four or five s-words.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The white police officers appear to be drinking during breaks between interrogating their prisoners.
Other Negative Elements
Some of the white bosses at the refinery lob hurtful racial comments toward their black employees. Chamusso is seen naked from behind when the police order him to strip down during an arrest.
The script for Catch a Fire was written by Shawn Slovo, the daughter of Joe Slovo, a white man who served as the head of the military wing of the ANC, and later as a cabinet member in Nelson Mandela's post-apartheid government. Shawn learned of Chamusso's story from her late father.
It's a powerful story well told. By focusing as much energy as they do on getting to know Chamusso and his family and friends before the initial arrest, Slovo and director Phillip Noyce (who's recently made quite a name for himself by diving headfirst into deep sociopolitical waters in such films as The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence), do much more than just make a grand political statement. Or just provide a two-hour history lesson. So, when the injustice of the apartheid government in general and one group of police officers in particular is revealed onscreen, it registers on a personal level.
Viewers might not always agree with Chamusso's choices—especially considering their impact on his wife and daughters—but it's hard not to empathize with his decision to take action against his (and their) oppressors. And in that, Catch a Fire ignites our God-given desires for justice, equality, freedom and peace.
Derek Luke, Tim Robbins and especially Bonnie Mbuli as Chamusso's wife deliver convincing performances. And instead of it minimizing their efforts, Noyce's decision to show us the real Chamusso in the story's final moments actually cements the moment. His obviously joyful spirit, surprising declarations of forgiveness for his former oppressors, and opening of his own home to dozens of his nation's AIDS orphans give his difficult (torture and violence should never be "easy" to watch) tale a satisfying and inspirational resolution.