Master Harold...and the Boys

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Master Harold...and the Boys Movie Poster Image
Play-based movie examines racism's toxic effects.
  • PG-13
  • 2010
  • 87 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Children learn prejudice from their parents.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Sam is a decent man living in an indecent society, doing his best to retain his dignity while being humiliated on a daily basis. He helps a white boy, who is embarrassed by the shame his drunken father brings on the family.


A man moons a disrespectful boy. A man talks about beating his wife. A boy hits a man with a ruler. The boy spits in a man's face. A boy makes it clear that he harbors racist sentiments, then confirms it when he tells a racist joke. A boy angrily throws his father's bottle of brandy against a wall.



A boy walks in on a couple having sex. The man is on top of the woman but no nudity is shown.



"F--k," "s--t," "ass," and "piss."



Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A father is an alcoholic. He takes money from his family and in one instance passes out in a bar, forcing the young son to get someone to help him take his father home. The boy angrily throws his father's bottle of brandy against a wall.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Master Harold...and the Boys is based on Athol Fugard's acclaimed 1982 play set in 1950 apartheid South Africa. Fugard explores the way children learn their prejudices, and the way society and parents instill bias in each new generation. A disabled man is an alcoholic and brings shame on this family. A white boy copes with his embarrassment and takes out his disappointment on kind and sympathetic black people. The boy uses language that includes "f--k" and "s--t." A man moons a disrespectful boy.  A man talks about beating his wife. A boy hits a man with a ruler and spits in his man's face. A boy makes it clear that he harbors racist sentiments, then confirms it when he tells a racist joke. A boy walks in on a couple having sex; no nudity.

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What's the story?

MASTER HAROLD... AND THE BOYS is the 2010 movie based on Athol Fugard's 1982 play about the struggle of black people in South Africa. The play was originally banned for its forthright portrayal of apartheid's ugliness and inhumanity, and for today's viewers it's useful to know that the South African system of racial oppression continued until 1991. Hally (Freddie Highmore of TV's The Good Doctor) is a 17-year-old white high school student who has enjoyed a close relationship with "the boys," Sam (Ving Rhames) and Willie (Patrick Mofokeng), the black employees who clean and serve in his mother's tea room. Before blacks were banned from living in their area, Sam lived in servants' quarters near Hally's family. Sam was close with the boy, a kind of beloved babysitter. It becomes clear that Hally's hapless dad, who lost his leg falling down a gangway on his way to serving in WWI, is now a hopeless alcoholic, hospitalized, probably to dry out. Hally hangs out after school at the tea room, but on this rainy day, the place is empty and Sam and Willie are living out their ballroom-dancing competition dreams. Hally is distracted by his father's condition and his disdain and racism flair up as he contends with the prospect of Dad returning from the hospital before being completely "well" (sober). Hally speaks ill of his dad as he dreads his return. Here Sam displays his humanity and kindness. Even though the father is racist, Sam cautions Hally to temper his angry words, which angers Hally further as he recognizes that he's being lectured by a "lowly" black man. Even though that black man has always been the caring man who played the role of surrogate father, suddenly Hally strikes out, testing the power given him by the apartheid regime. He hits Willie with a ruler and threatens Sam's job, demanding Sam address him as "Master Harold," reflecting the power differential between a white "man" and a black in that country at that time. Sam counters eloquently, suggesting that Hally is misplacing anger at his father and directing it at the supportive and kindly Sam.   

Is it any good?

This was a groundbreaking play in 1982 about the way people stoop to institutionalized injustice when they can't defend their bad behavior in any other way. But Master Harold...and the Boys suffers from the play-to-film transition, leaving all but the end feeling stilted. The play was set entirely in the Port Elizabeth tea room, designed to capitalize on the willing suspension of disbelief theater-goers eagerly engage in. As written for the screen by Nicky Rebelo and staged by director Lonny Price, the movie barely overcomes the theatrical limitations to expand into a fuller, more movie-like recreation of a real-ish universe.

Nevertheless, Ving Rhames beautifully portrays the compassionate and philosophical Sam, and Patrick Mofokeng embodies the stunted potential of so many good black men kept down in enforced poverty, ignorance, and unfairness. Fugard's final moments of eloquent protest, as uttered by Sam, demonstrate that in the act of demeaning others, we demean ourselves more.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how it's just as easy to teach children compassion and generosity as it is to teach them hate and selfishness. Where did Hally learn his prejudice in Master Harold...and the Boys?

  • Why do you think some people like to denigrate those who are different from them? Do you think there are economic advantages to prejudice? What are some examples?

  • How do you think people can be persuaded to abandon their prejudices? How did South Africa overthrow apartheid?

Movie details

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