Cry Freedom

November 30, 2012

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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A Soldier’s Story

November 12, 2012

It was reasonable to expect that A Soldier’s Story might be a hot, juicy melodrama on the order of In the Heat of the Night, the 1967 best picture Oscar winner. After all, it shares that film’s director, Norman Jewison, as well as a sweltering Southern setting and a touchy, racially-oriented story.

Now, In the Heat of the Night, like many best-picture winners, was never really a great movie to begin with. Lots of these films win because of important or chancy “content” rather than their aesthetic value, and today Heat—buoyed by good star turns by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger—looks like an overheated, if enjoyable, example of the concerned cinema of the 1960s.

Director-producer Jewison, who has also made Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, and …And Justice for All, has solidly ambitious credentials, although critical respectability has eluded him. It’s typical of him to take on the adaptation of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize hit, A Soldier’s Play, which is the story of murder among the soldiers of a black unit stationed in the South in 1944.

Unfortunately, this tale is not nearly as shamelessly engrossing as In the Heat of the Night. It’s a disappointingly stodgy and predictable film, with its appeal stemming from Fuller’s intelligent screenplay, a groovy score by Herbie Hancock, and a solid gallery of supporting performers.

On a drunken ramble home from the local watering hole, a tough sergeant (Adolph Caesar) is murdered in the night. The black company suspects the Ku Klux Klan. The white company heads want to suppress any investigation of the shooting, which leads credence to the KKK suggestion.

It’s supposedly a tinderbox (though we don’t get much sense of that). Capt. Richard Davenport (Howard Rollins, Jr.) is dropped into the middle of this, as the officer in charge of the investigation. A natty black lawyer from Washington, D.C., his presence disquiets the other officers—who think he will ruin whatever chance there is of finding the killer—and astonishes the men, most of whom have never seen a black officer before.

Davenport questions the men, and we discover the character of the sergeant through flashbacks. He is by far the most fascinating person in the film: a short, wiry tough guy who is obsessive on the subject of his race. He hates black men who, consciously or not, propagate a shuffling, stupid racial image.

The object of his attention is a private named C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley), a gifted athlete and singer who is not blessed with much intelligence. Rather, he is an update of Melville’s Billy Budd: a perfect innocent, and perfectly unself-conscious of it. The sergeant loathes his simple, passive lifestyle, and after hounding him for weeks, indirectly causes C.J.’s death.

During the investigation, we see many possible suspects for the sergeant’s murder. As a whodunit, however, the film is uncompelling, and the culprit easy to guess.

Another drawback is Rollins, who played the central figure in Ragtime a couple of years ago. He’s not quite up to the demands of this role, in which he is required to appear as sharp as the crease in his standard-issue trousers. But the supporting players—especially Denzel Washington, Art Evans, and the very natural Riley—are great, and Caesar, as the growling sergeant, is just terrific. It comes as no surprise that he has played the role in more the 600 performances onstage.

First published in the Herald, September 30, 1984

Thought of this film because Denzel Washington is currently riding high with an authoritative performance in Flight. Howard Rollins later played the Poitier role in the TV series “In the Heat of the Night”; he died young, as did Adolph Caesar.