NEW YORK -- In a sun-soaked hotel suite 37 floors above East 57th Street, Alfre Woodard is posing for a photograph.

And hating it.

Her grandfather, she explains, was part Cree Indian. He believed that a camera steals your soul, and Woodard agrees. (Which is a paradox: Woodard does, after all, make her living as a movie actress.)

"The press steals your soul," she continues, with a guilty laugh. "If I could have a career without doing it, I certainly would."

The feeling is not mutual. For well more than a decade, critics have singled out Woodard as an actress able to make the smallest role significant, able to inject dignity into the most banal film. Theirs has been an almost grateful praise, as if Woodard alone makes their jobs worthwhile. "Superb," they call her, and "ever-splendid" and "remarkable."

"If Woodard isn't Emmied ... for her role in 'Unnatural Causes,' " John Leonard wrote in 1986 in New York magazine, "the Academy has bricks for brains."

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences was indeed brick-brained that year, but Woodard has managed to snare two other Emmys, as well as an Oscar nomination in 1984 for "Cross Creek." Last year, even the public began to catch on, thanks to John Sayles's "Passion Fish." She portrayed the quietly desperate Chantelle, who, trading cocaine addiction in Chicago for a nurse's job in Louisiana, helps a former soap opera star (Mary McDonnell) with some serious recovery of her own. In the process, Chantelle recaptures some of her own self-esteem and becomes, as the pols say, cautiously optimistic.

The film "Bopha!," which opened Friday, finds Woodard performing quite the opposite transformation: She practically withers before our eyes. Based on Percy Mtwa's stage play, "Bopha!" (which means "arrest" or "detention" in Zulu) is set in a hardscrabble township in rural South Africa in 1980. Woodard plays Rosie Mangena, whose husband, Micah (Danny Glover), is a police sergeant mandated to enforce apartheid. Their son, meanwhile, works to destroy the system. "The heart of Rosie's whole being," says Woodard, "is that she's torn between this vow she's taken before God and her unconditional love for this son."

As in many of her roles, Woodard must convey a world of emotion with precious few lines. As always, she pulls it off. From the Variety review: "Woodard, in a thankless role, provides a little gem of a performance."

"Alfre, sitting in the dirt, playing with the African soil, can do more than the average person can do with a monologue in a courtroom," says Arsenio Hall, the executive producer of "Bopha!"

Those who have worked with Woodard all say the same things: She is a supremely intelligent actor (she prefers that word to "actress"), hard-working, curious.

Morgan Freeman, who makes his directorial debut with "Bopha!," has a more visceral answer for what makes Woodard so good.

"Truth," he says, without pausing one second.

Woodard has decided to do a few interviews for "Bopha!" because the film is very dear to her: She is a founding member of Artists for a Free South Africa, and regularly meets with exiled members of the African National Congress. Last August, while shooting "Bopha!" in drought-stricken Zimbabwe, she and Glover toured rural villages on behalf of Oxfam, the relief organization.

They arrived with fond memories of one such village. Seven Novembers ago, the two actors were making the HBO film "Mandela," also in Zimbabwe. The village women, so excited by the passion that Woodard brought to the role of Winnie Mandela, threw her a jubilant 33rd birthday party. "They saw just how honest and beautiful she was," Glover recalls. "Because she embraced them in a way that said she embraced their struggle."

Such commitment is apparently nothing new for Woodard -- whether toward her work, her family or her politics. Marlene Saritzky, director of the Texas Film Commission, got to know Woodard six years ago during a trip to Central America sponsored by the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, which Saritzky headed at the time. "If we all get one friend like Alfre in life, we're really lucky," says Saritzky.

She was born in Tulsa and named by a godmother who swore she saw the word "Alfre" in a vision -- spelled out in gold letters, no less. Woodard owes her infatuation with film to Brother Patrick O'Brien of Tulsa's Bishop Kelley High School. O'Brien showed his charges serious stuff, including Czech director Ivan Passer's "Intimate Lighting," which Woodard still calls "my all-time favorite film." Thanks to a nun at Bishop Kelly, Woodard began acting at about this same time, and has yet to stop.

Her family was a tight one, enamored with storytelling and given to gentle eccentricities. Alfre, for instance, wasn't allowed to cook until she left home. "My father had this thing," she explains. "He doesn't eat food that is cooked by children, people in their pajamas or pregnant women."

It would be only fair to note that Alfre Woodard, once she resigns herself to conducting an interview, is bewitchingly cordial and entertaining. She flits into so many voices and moods and stories that, after an hour, you feel as if you have just visited an entire family.

"Do you want to see a picture of my mummy?" she suddenly asks, dashing into the next room. "My mummy passed on last January, but she's definitely still alive." Woodard's father, a retired decorator, spends his time "kickin' around Tulsa, scratching in the oil patch." Her brother is a school counselor, also in Tulsa; her sister is an assistant principal in Oklahoma City.

Woodard returns with photos of both her mother and her daughter, a 26-month-old whom Woodard and her husband, the writer Roderick Spencer, adopted at birth. Her name is Mavis, after Woodard's favorite singer, Mavis Staples. The family lives in Santa Monica, Calif.

On this day, in New York, Woodard is wearing an elegant beige suit, a simple choker of gold beads, and no shoes -- her reflexologist has just paid a visit. Besides promoting "Bopha!," Woodard is also in town to shoot Spike Lee's "Crooklyn," a film about a family that sounds very much like Lee's own. Woodard plays a mother of five. "It's just them, their block in Brooklyn, during the summer months," she says. "And it's just like, kids -- rippin' and runnin'."

The story, Woodard says, is told through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl. Once again, Woodard will play the glue and not the glitter. This is not breaking news.

"It's very annoying to have people tell me that they think that I'm such a fabulous actress on one hand and then say to me, 'I wish there were more for you to do.' " she says, fully indignant. "Now, what this is saying to me is, 'I think you're only good enough to act if the script says this woman is black.' "

"It's really appalling, the plight of African American actresses," says Glover. "What amazes me also is that, even though {Woodard} understands this dynamic of what happens in this business, she's not bitter. She doesn't allow that to interfere with her life's work."

Woodard has played every sort of role available to her. She earned a theater degree from Boston University in 1974, and hit Broadway soon after with "Me and Bessie," a Bessie Smith revue. She began to frequent the small screen, in everything from "The White Shadow" and "Palmerstown, U.S.A." to "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law." Guest appearances on these last two shows won Woodard her Emmys, and her "L.A. Law" performance made Sayles think of her when he cast "Passion Fish." "She wasn't on the screen long," he recalls, "but you just feel like you want them to drop the rest of the show and have only her."

Woodard's made dozens of movies, including many for television, which seems less reluctant to put black women on its screen. Among her theatrical films: Alan Rudolph's "Remember My Name" (her debut, in 1978), Robert Altman's "H.E.A.L.T.H." in 1979 (practically stealing the show), Martin Ritt's "Cross Creek" in 1983 (playing the devoted maid Geechee), Lawrence Kasdan's "Grand Canyon" in 1991 (again costarring with Glover) and the recent dud "Heart and Souls" ("Ms. Woodard," wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times, "manages to be charming in what could have been an insufferable role").

Her best work? That, says Woodard, would have to be an independent film called "Pretty Hattie's Baby." Don't worry if you haven't seen it -- no one else has either. A tug-of-war between its various producers has kept it in limbo for nearly three years. "We shouldn't be talking about this," says Woodard, "but it's about a black woman in the '50s who adopts what she thinks is a mixed baby that turns out to be a spanking-white baby."

Woodard adored the role of Hattie. "I got to cook with all the pots and all the ingredients," she says, relating with glee that her character, the adoptive mother, is the town drunk and a preacher's wife. Fauna Hodel, the "spanking-white" woman on whose childhood this story is based, remembers one day that Woodard's husband, Roderick, was on the set. "Alfre was so realistic at being this outrageous drunk that Roderick just stood in a corner, embarrassed," says Hodel.

"Pretty Hattie's Baby" also afforded Woodard the chance to work with a hero, Ivan Passer, the director of "Intimate Lighting."

"She's a dream," says Passer, who hopes the film will be released soon. "Very committed. There is a spiritual side to her; I don't think it's too known. There is a joyfulness with which she goes through the day."

The next film Woodard wants to make is "Brown Sugar," a romantic comedy that she commissioned her husband to write. Woodard, it seems, has learned that if you sit around waiting for the right role, you may just sit around waiting.

"You know, I wasn't {initially} interested in Rosie," she says of her character in "Bopha!" "I got interested, after I went and found the South African women, and they told me who they were."

Woodard scrutinized the lot of a black policeman's wife in the townships. And she became convinced that the upbeat ending that the screenplay called for was too Hollywood and not enough Moroka Township -- that a family shattered by something as vicious as apartheid couldn't suddenly heal itself.

Morgan Freeman and Danny Glover had come to feel the same way. So, from Zimbabwe, they pleaded their case to executive producer Arsenio Hall and Paramount.

"Alfre will give me her opinion, but she doesn't lobby, she doesn't scream, she doesn't fight," says Hall. "She says it once, but you probably listen to her more than anybody."

"We just laid a heavy, heavy case," Woodard says with a smile.Indeed. When "Bopha!" opened in theaters last week, it ended not with a burst of Hollywood feel-good but with the far more somber -- and realistic -- climax that Woodard, Freeman and Glover had fought for.

Woodard hardly gloats when she tells the story, but her delight is clear. For an actor who has never chased the dollar, who has always sought out quality roles, "Bopha!" represents the rarest kind of Hollywood victory -- a moral one. "The important thing," she says soberly, "is getting what you want, what you think is right."

Stephen Dubner is an associate editor of New York magazine.