Shepherds and Butchers begin provocatively; in 1980s South Africa, a white youngster, Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds), shoots dead seven unarmed black men. We find ourselves following the lawyer tasked with his defence, Johan Webber (Steve Coogan, rocking an erratic attempt at a Pretorian accent). Learning that the murderer worked on the death row, Webber – and the film – sets about mounting a full-blown attack on the death penalty and its inhumane applications.
As a piece of historical activism, Shepherds and Butchers is well-intended and well-argued: the kind of banal but handsomely-made courtroom drama that’s a dime-a-dozen on weekday television. The execution scenes are truly harrowing, but its simplistic structure can’t help but feel over-repetitive.
But the film’s biggest failing is its inability to consider race with any nuance – surprising, given its apartheid-era setting. There are meaningful gestures in the mix – the predominantly black skin of the executed inmates, a shot of Webber at his country clad in only white – but the absence of any substantial black character is a major oversight. The film argues that it’s impossible to reckon with the humanity of the men you must kill, but prefers to sympathise with the murder than truly humanise his victims.