In the opening shots of A Dry White Season, two little boys wrestle happily on a bright green lawn. One boy is white, the other is black. This may seem like an ordinary enough image, but the fact that the boys live in South Africa immediately charges the scene with bitterness.
A Dry White Season is a thoughtful, well-intentioned movie, and strong enough in its ultimate impact. I must say that, to these eyes, it never gets much more complex than that simple opening image; it’s a movie full of feeling and anger, but its characters are broad and obvious. The villains are evil, the complacent whites are shallow, the oppressed blacks are justifiably outraged and righteous.
All of which, in terms of the reality of the situation, sounds correct and appropriate. In terms of drama, it does not provide a particularly interesting story. ·
Like Richard Attenborough’s roundly criticized film of South Africa, Cry Freedom, the film centers on a middle-class white who becomes radicalized when the brutal apartheid system butts against his own life. Here the protagonist is a comfortable teacher (played by Donald Sutherland) whose gardener (Winston Ntshona) mysteriously dies while in prison on trumped-up charges. Sutherland’s attempts to find the truth result in his alienating his wife (Janet Suzman) and losing his job.
Susan Sarandon turns up in a peripheral role as a journalist helping Sutherland gather evidence on the police brutality; Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot) plays the deadly police chief. Zakes Mokae, a South African actor now living in the United States, gives perhaps the film’s most intriguingly-shaded performance, as a taxi driver and anti-apartheid activist who alway seems to know more than he lets on.
A Dry White Season is the second film from director Euzhan Palcy, who made an impressive debut with Sugar Cane Alley a few years ago. Paley, who adapted the novel by South African writer Andre Brink, is clearly impassioned about her subject. Through sheer forcefulness, she keeps the movie compelling despite its sketchiness.
The most memorable element of A Dry White Season may be Palcy’s great casting coup. Marlon Brando, who hasn’t made a movie since 1980’s The Formula, and professes to be sick of the business, rolls into the film at about the halfway mark and plays a wily lawyer who conducts a bravura courtroom sequence.
Brando, who did the role for free, is one of our great actors. He is also not dumb: This part is about as juicy as they come. Huge, white-haired, sporting a florid British accent and a mountain of charm, Brando effortlessly seizes the movie and twirls it around his fleshy finger.
Granted, it probably throws the film off balance, but how exhilarating to see the great man at work. Too bad he no longer seems interested in exercising his gift.
First published in the Herald, September 1989
Palcy has been getting re-appreciated lately, which seems overdue. I’d like to watch this movie again, both for Brando and for the possibility that my mixed response had more to do with my own ideas about how stories should be about gray areas rather than good vs. evil fables. But hell, apartheid was about evil incarnate, so fair play.