“The Power of One” begins with a canvas that involves all of the modern South African dilemma, and ends as a boxing movie. Somewhere in between, it loses its way. The film, which spans the years surrounding the Second World War, tells the story of a young English-speaking boy who is sent to an Afrikaanslanguage boarding school, where a neo-Nazi clique makes his life miserable. He fights back, and keeps fighting back when, as a young man, he becomes friends with Africans who are part of a developing political movement.
His story was first told in a thoughtful historical best seller by Bryce Courtenay, who tried to give some sense of what it was like to grow up as an English-speaking liberal in a country where apartheid and aspects of the police state were combined in an unholy marriage with parliamentary democracy. In a sense, the story of “The Power of One” could continue right down to the March 17 referendum in which a majority of South Africa's white voters ratified de Klerk's decision to move toward black majority rule. That would be the happy ending.
But “The Power of One” wants to be more than the story of a young man whose life reflects the times of his country. It also wants to be a box office hit, and in playing the notes of mass entertainment, it loses its purpose. You can almost feel the film slipping out of the hands of its director, John G. Avildsen, as the South African reality is upstaged by the standard cliches of a fight picture.
The hero, nicknamed P.K., is played by Stephen Dorff as a perpetual outsider who is victimized at an Afrikaans boarding school by young students whose idol, in the years before World War Two, is Hitler. They stage secret meetings and mock trials, kill his beloved pet chicken, and are ready to humiliate the boy in a bizarre ceremony before the authorities finally step in. These scenes are meant to show the lasting antagonism between the two white tribes of South Africa, the Afrikaaners and the British, although in reality, given the poverty and powerlessness of most Afrikaaners in the 1930s, it would have been much more likely (if less tidy) to show an Afrikaaner boy taunted at an English boarding school.
The little neo-Nazis are led by a punk with a swastika tattooed on his arm, and at the point where that same tattooed arm turns up attached to a bullying officer of the state security force, I knew the movie was lost. “The Power of One” makes the same crucial error as “Article 99”; it diminishes evil by embodying it in one man who must be vanquished. By implying that his defeat is the defeat of his system, it avoids the real issues. (Indeed, this movie ends before the worst of apartheid is even enacted into law.) P.K. is embraced in the movie by young blacks who form the core of a new political movement. They see him as a symbol, as a myth (these are their own words) who, as a boxing champion, can help lead them to freedom. P.K. becomes best friends with a young African man, also a boxer, and as they climb into the ring with one another (in an unsanctioned interracial fight), the African cheerfully explains that whoever wins, a leader will be born.
This is pretty shaky politically. And it continues the tendency of so many recent films about South Africa, like “Cry Freedom,” to embody the anti-apartheid struggle in an heroic white man, presumably so white Western audi ences will have an easier time identifying.
The film, shot in Zimbabwe, begins with a clear sense of the land and the attachment of all Southern Africans to it. It shows the symbiotic, if paternalistic, relationship of blacks and whites in rural areas. It gives some sense of the beginnings of apartheid. But then it turns into another movie about a bad bully, and by the end, when the hero and the neo-Nazi are mano-a-mano, and riots are sweeping Alexandria township, I was in despair. South Africa is too complex to be reduced to a formula in which everything depends on who shoots who.
There are some nice touches: John Gielgud as a headmaster, happy in his academic ivory tower in the midst of upheaval; the brightness and energy of the soundtrack, largely recorded by Bulowayo choral groups; the very proper, venomous racism expressed at the dining table of a government minister; the photography of the heartbreakingly evocative landscape. But how can you forgive a movie that begins by asking you to care who will win freedom, and ends by asking you to care who will win a fight?
Let's make one thing clear: bullies suck. Nobody deserves to be treated poorly, and nothing can ruin a perfectly good day more than getting picked on. But… sometimes bullies can serve as some great inspiration to beef up at the gym, or at least learn to stand up for yourself. So maybe bullying isn't all that bad after all.
Just kidding. Bullying is always a bad thing, but as Peekay shows us in The Power of One, it can definitely make us stronger individuals in the end.
It's safe to say this is one riveting read—the story features underdogs, several brushes with death, and good old-fashioned revenge. How could you go wrong with that? It's also got a lot to say about racism, injustice, and the power of the individual to overcome obstacles. A captivating plot with socially relevant themes? We can't believe this book was never a selection for Oprah's Book Club.
The Power of One was Bryce Courtenay's first book. It was published in 1989 and quickly became a huge bestseller. It's the story of a boy, Peekay, who decides to become the welterweight boxing champion of the world after suffering at the hands of bullies at boarding school.
After he is branded as the little-guy and seemingly doomed to a life of constant torture by bigger, meaner kids, Peekay has a chance meeting with a boxer on a train ride home from boarding school.
He sees the boxer defeat his opponent, who happens to be a giant in comparison. At this moment, Peekay finds hope: little can defeat big. He'll need to keep the hope alive as he navigates the rest of his childhood and adolescence, too. Between a big world war that personally affects Peekay and his friends; a big state that, by law, imposes the separation of black and white people in South Africa; and some big economic problems, Peekay has a lot to struggle against.
The novel was published in the last years of South Africa's apartheid system, which gave white people more rights than black people and violated the human rights of black citizens. It details the racism of South Africa in the mid-20th century, the precursors to the apartheid system that was getting a lot of international attention in the 80s and 90s.
Peekay stands up for what he believes in, and stands up to apartheid. In the end, little does defeat big in this inspiring novel.
Besides the regular old problems that all kids have to deal with growing up, the protagonist of The Power of One, Peekay, deals with some horrible violence and racism during his childhood in South Africa in the mid-20th century.
Sometimes it can be hard to figure out how to deal with really-big-deal injustice, like when a whole system is designed unfairly or someone who is in power uses their position to hurt the people around them. And for a kid, it is virtually impossible to really make a difference in those situations.
But Peekay is a trooper. Through a lot of thoughtful observation and reflection, and also through meeting very special people that teach him great lessons, Peekay finds a way to think for himself and to not give in, even when the odds are against him.
Doc, the old music teacher and father figure to Peekay, is an intelligent, cultured person who also struggles with his own demons. Peekay learns from him that no one is perfect, but that perseverance gets results.
Geel Piet, a prisoner at the jail where Peekay trains for boxing, shows Peekay that skin color does not determine someone's value, even if it does determine their fate in a racist system. The tragic loss of Geel Piet gives Peekay his determination to fight his way through life.
In the end, what Peekay is learning is all about "the power of one," which is his name for the force inside of everyone that lets them continue to fight, to be independent. You might find him inspiring; if not, well…you must be pretty tough to impress.