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Morgan Freeman's Alternate Roots

Despite his South African foray, the actor-turned-director embraces the American South

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Morgan Freeman knows his roots. Though he has just made his directorial debut with the Danny Glover-Alfre Woodard drama Bopha!, the story of one black family’s struggle against apartheid in South Africa, ”I’m not one of those people reaching back towards the motherland,” he says, pushing his black Stetson back on his head. ”This is the motherland.”

Freeman, dressed in Wrangler jeans and dusty brown cowboy boots, gestures behind him to the sprawling, verdant farm he owns in tiny Charleston, Miss., in the region where his family has lived for generations. Unlike most actors- turned-directors, who choose a very personal project their first time out, the 56-year-old Freeman maintains that ”the subject matter I was always passionate about was the American West.”

So how did Freeman, rooted in Americana, come to direct this story of South African political upheaval? Originally, the twice-Oscar-nominated actor (Street Smart, Driving Miss Daisy) had been approached to play Glover’s role of Micah, a policeman who is forced to arrest his own son for civil disobedience. But Freeman’s agent had discussed directing with his client for years, and Freeman was ready to give it a try. ”When I read the script in early 1991, I could see it,” says Freeman, who always felt that Glover should play the lead because ”Danny’s connection to Africa is much deeper than mine. His power and ability work much better for this character than mine would.”

Ironically, here in Freeman’s motherland, his film is facing tougher obstacles than it did during shooting on location in Zimbabwe. Despite a severe drought that led to blackouts, frequent mini-tornadoes, and a plague of worms, Freeman still finished Bopha! on time and under budget, thanks in part to the cooperation of the local government. ”To them,” says Freeman, ”we were the hottest thing going.”

But back home, Bopha!, which opened Sept. 24 in a mere 26 theaters, has been disappointing, making only $200,000 to date despite good reviews. ”(Paramount) has given up on it for all intents and purposes,” Glover says sadly.

”This will go down as Paramount’s prestige effort,” says the pragmatic Freeman, searching the stable for a bucket to water his horses. ”They weren’t looking to make a killing. You can’t fault studios for their hesitancy to invest in more esoteric films. You have to make meaningful things that are commercial. Otherwise you’re just jerking off, if you’ll pardon the expression.”

Freeman, who says Bopha! gave him ”a certain level of confidence,” isn’t sure when he’ll direct again. Having just finished Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, in which he plays a convict who befriends costar Tim Robbins, the actor notes, ”I’m not trying to sell myself as a director all of a sudden. I’m an actor who will probably choose to direct again.”

What he prefers to direct at the moment is the upkeep and development of his beloved land, which he bought in 1989. Cared for by a staff of five, the farm includes a small cemetery where Freeman’s stepfather is buried and several striking sculptures Freeman brought back from Zimbabwe. As for his next career move, the actor says, ”You can’t program it. Well, you can, but why bother? I’ll do what comes.” In the meantime, he’s relaxing on his quiet land dotted with sky-sweeping sycamore, pear, apple, and peach trees, and tending to his roots.