Cry Freedom

At the end of Cry Freedom, there is a roll call of the political prisoners who have died in captivity in South Africa in recent years. The list gives names, dates of death, and the scandalously bogus “causes of death” that have been supplied by official government sources. This list, and the obvious contempt with which the filmmakers view the official explanations, is a gesture of healthy political activism.

If only the two and a half hours of movie that preceded it were informed with an equally angry passion. Cry Freedom, the story of anti-apartheid leader Steven Biko and journalist Donald Woods, is directed and produced by Sir Richard Attenborough, who copped a few Oscars in 1982 for the similarly large-scale message movie Gandhi. Attenborough seems to be a committed and serious man, and it’s nice that Gandhi exists; but, aside from a few effective scenes and a superb performance by Ben Kingsley, Gandhi is an oversized, galumphing elephant of a movie.

Cry Freedom is plagued by the same sorts of bulky, obtrusive storytelling problems. (Attenborough avoided this weakness in his interim movie, A Chorus Line, which didn’t have a story to tell.)

The film is in two distinct parts. In Part 1, newspaper editor Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) has his consciousness raised by Biko (Denzel Washington), whose speeches and actions dominate the early going.

In Part 2, Woods spreads Biko’s message of racial equality, whereupon Woods and his wife (Penelope Wilton) and children are harassed by South African officials and plot a complicated escape. This section is essentially a suspense movie, and as such it’s acceptably tense.

But what happened to Biko? Oh, he died. In a South African prison, in suspicious circumstances. Biko’s death, an hour into the movie, marks the story’s peculiar shift, a shift that earned Attenborough and screenwriter John Briley a thorough roasting when the film opened in larger cities a few months ago. Attenborough was accused of selling Biko out, of falling back too easily on the dramatically charged story of the white family escaping, when the true heroism lies with Biko and the blacks who continue to suffer under apartheid.

Attenborough has explained that he didn’t want to make an unaccessible political tract. Rather, he sought a work of entertainment that would be seen by a wide audience, the better to alert people to the problem of apartheid. I take Sir Richard’s point, and frankly some of the criticism of this film was a bit holier-than-thou. But it would be easier to support Attenborough’s theory of drama if his film were good.

It isn’t. Cry Freedom relies on the crustiest clichés of second-rate melodrama to score its (entirely laudable) points. When Biko first appears on screen, he is momentarily obscured by a flash of bright light, a technique reminiscent of those old biblical movies in which Christ’s face is never shown. If a fat and corrupt police official says, “We’re not the monsters we’re always made out to be,” you can be sure that the moment will be followed by a cut to a group of sunglassed henchmen threatening Woods’ family.

This is a true story (based on Woods’ books Biko and Asking for Trouble), and these criticisms are not meant to suggest that these reprehensible events did not happen, merely that Attenborough weakens his case with cardboard effects (and lessens the impact of a quietly good performance by Denzel Washington, of TV’s “St. Elsewhere,” as Biko). In rendering the situation with cheap theatrics in this heavy, gumbooted way, Attenborough undercuts the tragedy he has chosen to describe.

First published in the Herald, January 1988 (?)

Not an artistic success, but then Attenborough had the aims of the activist, not the artist. And who’s to say his widely-seen movie wasn’t successful at that purpose.

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