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CRY FREEDOM

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Richard Attenborough

Written by John Briley

With Kevin Kline, Denzel Washington, and Penelope Wilton.

Gandhi, the man, is a mighty hard act to follow; Gandhi the motion picture, alas, is not. In Cry Freedom director Richard Attenborough does his damnedest to deliver a stirring wide-screen, Dolby-amplified sequel, but all he manages is a brief nod in the direction of South African martyr Steve Biko--barely long enough to dress him up in Gandhi's loincloth--before he hastens laboriously on to his center-stage tale, that of a conscience-stricken white liberal wriggling from the coils of the vile apartheid police state. We wind up with a very welcome antiapartheid feature film, all right, but the price for pitching it at a mass market is too high--and too ironic--to ignore comfortably. It's all too evident that in the inevitable struggle with conventional commercial criteria, zealous good intentions came out second best, bloodied and somewhat bowed.

The explicit irony explored in Cry Freedom is how suddenly and relentlessly a vicious "security" apparatus in the racist fortress of South Africa will assault even the privileged white folks (16 percent of the population) on those rare occasions when some foolhardy soul refuses to let skin pigment dictate his politics. In this sense, Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader killed by the master-race authorities in 1977, was the foolhardiest of men for confronting a demented and degrading power structure without himself lapsing into reverse racism. Cry Freedom, based on the memoirs of former South African news editor Donald Woods, is Attenborough's tribute to the extraordinary black liberation leader and--rather lopsidedly--to Woods, the renegade white refugee. Well and good. But the film is afflicted by the director's overscaled and flamboyant style, and more so by several implicit and unacknowledged ironies infesting the script.

Foremost among these ironies is--in this final cut, if not in conception--the decision to focus chiefly on the travails of the newspaper editor, portrayed on-screen as something of a slow learner who at age 42 at last figures out how malignant the policy of "separate development" of races is, and is meant to be. The initial intention, according to Woods's starry-eyed account of the film's making, was nothing so reprehensible as to slight the Biko character (or worry about whether a black hero could "carry" a $35 million film); rather the filmmakers wanted to capture as sensitively and insightfully as possible the relationship between Biko and Woods, the rare connection between black man and white. On-screen nothing of the sort transpires; what we do get is an utterly angelic and golden-tongued Biko who, as much through his personal radiance as his rhetorical skills, persuades an awfully smug, bland, but well-meaning editor to stamp the liberation movement with the good housekeeping seal of approval. Well, if Woods says the guy's OK, he's OK by me. Woods here becomes less an admiring ally than a source of legitimacy. The real Biko, who wrote that "the 'Black Consciousness' approach would be irrelevant in a colourless and non-exploitative egalitarian society," sought to be understood by the ruling caste but hardly required their approval. Something vital--Biko's spirit--is sacrificed in this subtle filmic shift of emphasis (and Woods, to judge by his writings, is not at all at fault).

Another irony stems from Attenborough's dogged portrayal of Biko as a Gandhian hero, a paragon of nonviolence, in the intractably oppressive context of South Africa. Biko advocated nonviolent action as a matter of tactics, not principle; in his situation, only a saint or a nitwit could rule out the option of armed conflict at some stage. In the early 1900s Gandhi did win minor reforms for the Indian community in South Africa, but the contemporary scene can hardly pose a more daunting and lethal challenge to nonviolent activists. Fewer than 5 million whites control the government, a powerful military, and nearly 90 percent of the land, and they are murderously reluctant to concede even a whisper of power to 30 million other inhabitants. One would think twice before blocking the path of a South African armored car, tank, or, for that matter, even a tricycle: all the drivers seem much too eager to prove the Nazis were a bunch of inept sissies.

Other nagging problems derive from the film's De Millean scale, and from Attenborough's penchant for substituting a complicated tracking shot or a swooping crane shot where a simple medium two-shot might better serve the purpose. The 70-millimeter sweep of Cry Freedom effectively enhances the spectacle--a raid on a squatter settlement, Biko's funeral, the 1976 Soweto massacre; but otherwise it tends to undermine the story by creating a wider literal space and emotional distance between the characters, and between the characters on-screen and the audience. Epic films tell us about headline events, and a good deal less about the fine print of human (and inhuman) relationships and motives. One result in Cry Freedom is that viewers are never incited to examine their own selves through the protagonists' struggles with racist temptations; we are left free to imagine that the white South Africans on-screen are the only potential villains in the theater.

Cry Freedom opens with the ruthless razing of a black squatter settlement near Cape Town by a crushing invasion of "Hippo" armored vehicles, bulldozers, and extremely high-spirited policemen with snarling dogs. (Incidentally, that community, Cross Roads, still survives despite all the force the state has mustered to drive away the blacks, who cannot legally own property in white areas.) Cut to the more friendly confines of the newspaper office of Donald Woods (Kevin Kline, in a sedated Gee-where-am-I? performance), fearless opponent of black, Coloured, and nonwhite racists everywhere. This guy's really got his priorities straight, until the only black female doctor in South Africa storms in and dares him to meet the notorious Biko, who, in house imprisonment under a "banning order," is not so easy to reach for a chat. It's love at very nearly first sight; Biko (Denzel Washington) steps out of an enhaloing shaft of sunlight and Woods is thereafter dazzled, for Biko really was a dazzling, keen-witted, and indomitable man. That much the film--drawing on Biko's writings and courtroom testimony for dialogue--manages impressively to convey. Despite house arrest, Biko regularly eludes and even taunts his captors, appears at an impromptu rally at a rugby stadium, continues writing, and even accompanies Woods to a drinking shebeen in the squalid shambles of a shantytown where life, cramped and cruel, somehow goes on. The ghastly contrast with Woods's plush life-style on an exquisite estate--resting on a bed of cheap, legally enchained labor--is quite self-evident, but the film provides only the barest of clues as to how so obviously decent a man as Woods can reach middle age and high stature as a journalist, of all things, without having troubled earlier to notice on what terms and in what ways the majority of the population must eke out their existences. That, perhaps, is the most chilling and powerful comment the film tacitly makes about the crisp efficiency with which the apartheid system, until lately, has functioned.

Woods's transformation, as related in his books, was a more deeply felt and complex affair than the pallid version projected on-screen. Overnight he becomes a crusader, and the next night he's an enemy of the state. Scenes between Biko and Woods are charged with about as much passion as Plato's dialogues. The on-screen Woods comes perilously close to embodying the South African definition of a liberal: a decent conservative who has been mugged by the secret police. "You need a black leader [like Biko] you can talk to," the earnest editor pleads with the treacherous minister of police. Before you know it, Biko is beaten to death, and the Woods family is the recipient of a banning order, death threats, and acid-impregnated T-shirts. With Biko dead less than halfway through the film, the flight of the Woods family amounts--partly because we know the outcome--to one of the most extended anticlimaxes in cinematic history. The tale of the messenger threatens to eclipse the message--a biography of Biko--that he quite bravely is smuggling into a wider world.

Nonetheless, this more than slightly askew epic merits a look, and one hopes that other films, which match some of the superb plays and novels by South African authors, will be encouraged by Cry Freedom's box office, not to mention moral, appeal. Attenborough's film at least signals that South Africa is a subject in which other filmmakers--and only a slight irony is intended here--can become constructively engaged.

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