Race and racism aren’t at the heart of the South African Apartheid-era legal drama “Shepherds and Butchers.” That’s almost certainly a flaw in the film, as the black victims of its central crime are not the focus, merely background for its story in a “Mississippi Burning” sort of way.
But in telling this “inspired by true events” story of a death penalty case of a white man murdering seven black men, the inhumanity of The State is exposed and its cost — to the oppressors who administer it, to the very government’s legitimacy in whose name these horrors are perpetrated — gets at race and racism indirectly and in ways that cut deep.
Steve Coogan stars as John Weber, an activist attorney whose issue isn’t Apartheid itself, but the death penalty. He is arm-twisted into taking on a hopeless case, a mass murder we witness in the film’s grim opening scene. His only defense?
“This was no act for which there are no legal consequences,” he insists. Circumstances triggered a mental state in his client, he will argue, that will make the court question “whether the accused can be legally responsible for what happened.”
The judge looks perplexed. The prosecutor (the glorious Andrea Riseborough) all but rolls her eyes. But that’s what Weber will do — poke at this case through the prism of his own activism.
“Nobody gets away with killing seven people unless they’re the police,” Weber quips in private.
When young Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds) turned what looked like road rage into what seems like a racist mass shooting, he was at the end of a very bad day in a string of tortuous awful days. Leon is a warder, a guard at “Maximum,” the nearby Pretoria prison. His job is on death row.
We learn that Leon took the job young to avoid being drafted. This was during South Africa’s long war with guerillas and government forces in neighboring Angola, the late ’80s. Leon avoided murderous conflict by taking an essential, draft-immune job caring for, preparing and helping hang inmates sentenced to death.
In the year Leon was on the job, 164 people were hung, and he was present for all of those. On the day he snapped, they’d hung another seven — all at once.
Leon is reluctant to even have a defense mounted, reluctant to go into details, reluctant to make excuses and reluctant to take the court, via questioning, back to grimly awful events that might have sent him over the edge that night.
Weber’s activism on this subject has been in the abstract because of the secrecy with which South Africa carried out its executions. He leans on a special forces (usually deployed against Black Africans) brother in law for insight, Weber and we appreciate what the violence dictated by a white supremacist government is costing them all.
The film, based on a novel by South African attorney Brian Cox, recalls a South Africa where mass executions were common and the approved manner of doing things. Weber knows enough to be appalled. His co-counsel Pedrie (Eduan van Jaarsveldt) is anxious to save the accused. But he is the first pushback Weber gets from this line of attack.
Pedrie ticks off the terrible crimes of those Leon executed, hissing “Get rid of them, for GOOD” as the only solution. But as the trial digs into the secrecy, state-sponsored killing done without outside witnesses, the inhumanity of the system and the guards who perform it become clear. The chaos of the slaughter, the ugly details of what happens before, during and after a hanging is exposed and Pedrie and we are given pause. That snap judgement doesn’t seem so unassailable after all.
The details can’t help but bring to mind The Holocaust — wholesale slaughter “processed” by desensitized killers, all a part of a “machine” run by the heartless, criminally culpable “State.” What this does to everyone concerned is monstrous.
“Shepherds and Butchers” keeps the families of the victims at almost arm’s length, to its detriment. It barely gives us a feeling for the scores of the condemned Leon meets, feeds and must watch die. But even that is almost enough because the execution scenes are a nightmare — brutal and awful even when everything goes “right.” And we’ve learned with “drug cocktails” in this country and any place that still carries out hanging can tell you, sometimes things go wrong.
I found the picture moving in spite of its seeming unwillingness to wholly grapple with race and Coogan’s unwillingness to master the Afrikaner accent. He’s a gifted mimic, and Riseborough manages it. What gives?
But what it does wrestle with is profound, and profoundly disturbing.
MPA Rating: R for disturbing and violent content
Cast: Steve Coogan, Garion Dowds, Robert Hobbs, Eduan van Jaarsveldt, Nicola Hanekom and Andrea Riseborough.
Credits: Directed by Oliver Schmitz, script by Brian Cox, based on a novel by Chris Marnewick. A Distant Horizon film on Netflix.
Running time: 1:46