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.


A Chorus Line

September 21, 2011

It’s been a long haul, the better part of a decade, in fact, but A Chorus Line, the forever-running Broadway smash, has finally taken a cinematic form.

Word is that Columbia Pictures had sunk more than 10 million bucks into the thing before a single actor had been hired or a single frame of film exposed. The money went to buying the screen rights and to various abortive screenplay attempts.

Apparently it took affable Richard Attenborough, fresh off winning an Oscar for Gandhi, to whip the project into shape. Now, Sir Richard isn’t the first person you’d think of for A Chorus Line—Bob Fosse he ain’t—but, as it turns out, Attenborough’s unadventurous, no-nonsense approach makes for a serviceable adaptation.

The play, which was conceived, choreographed, and directed by Michael Bennett, put a bunch of dancers through a grueling audition, during which they not only had to dance and sing but reveal their most private thoughts and fears. They performed at the whim of an unseen director, whose voice could be heard barking orders.

Attenborough has changed very little, except to make the relationship between the director (Michael Douglas) and one of the dancers (Alyson Reed) more explicit. They’re ex-lovers, and Attenborough uses the friction between them as a thread of plot, something, presumably, he thought the audience needed to hold on to.

That’s all there is—the dancers reveal some anxieties and sing some songs. A few of the songs (by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban) are okay, and the dancers (choreography by Jeffrey Hornaday) are quite energetic.

As a diverting holiday entertainment, this is fine. As a movie, it’s not much to crow about. There was a special charge about seeing the spectacular dances performed live, especially the nifty precision numbers. But it’s less enthralling, less room-filling, in a movie house, particularly when the film fails to make the action meaningful.

And it’s a little hard to remember now why they play won a ton of Tony awards, or why—is this possible?—it copped the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The film has a weakness in Douglas; he doesn’t suggest the sort of brilliant mad creator who could get away with his dictatorial behavior. Mikhail Baryshnikov was once mentioned as a possibility for the part, and that would have brought some fire to it.

Douglas is the only big name in the cast; most of the dancers are unknowns. A few distinguish themselves: Vicki Frederick has the right look for her brassy role and does well with “At the Ballet”; Yamil Borges does a nice job with “Nothing”; and Gregg Burge dances up a storm in “Surprise, Surprise” (one of the two new songs written for the film).

One more thing. Attenborough has “opened up” the play a bit by including brief flashbacks, and a couple of scenes on the street. This backfires—it breaks the tension of being inside the theater—but Attenborough also commits a cultural faux pas. In one of the street scenes, a character slips and falls while hailing a taxi, whereupon the cabbie actually politely inquires whether the woman is all right. Clearly, Attenborough, an Englishman, is out of touch with this particular reality, or he never would have permitted a New York cab driver to engage in such uncharacteristic behavior.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

I sound somewhat too generous to the film. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but the Broadway show I knew pretty well, and it is an inspired idea for a musical, quite exciting within the walls of a theater. The problem with a movie version of A Chorus Line is that there should never be a movie version of A Chorus Line, unless you just hand it over the Jacques Rivette and let him explore it for three hours or so. The material must take place in real time, in an actual theater; that’s the point. Apologies to Marvin Hamlisch; the songs are better than okay.