Oct. 30, 2010

Cry Freedom (1987)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Richard Attenborough
Stars: Kevin Kline, Denzel Washington, Penelope Wilton

What it's about. Based on two books by Donald Woods, and set in South Africa circa 1975 to 1977. Woods (Kevin Kline) is the editor of an influential liberal newspaper often at odds with the conservative Apartheid government.

Black civil rights leader Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) seizes the opportunity to convert Woods into an advocate for his cause. After Biko is killed by government security forces, his death is attributed to a hunger strike. Woods investigates, and proves that Biko was in fact beaten to death.

Trouble-making Woods is unsurprisingly targeted by the same security force that murdered Biko. After several acts of intimidation, Woods decides he must flee South Africa, despite the difficulties involved. The nation is a police state, Woods is under constant surveillance, and his family of five must also leave the country. An elaborate plan is devised for a New Year's journey to Lesotho and political freedom.

How others will see it. Cry Freedom was a box office dud, but was well received by critics. The Golden Globes nominated it for Best Picture and Best Director, its cause undoubtedly aided by political correctness and Attenborough's prior success with Gandhi, which had won eight Oscars including Best Picture and Director.

The Academy Awards was less impressed with Cry Freedom, although its three nominations included one for Washington, who was relatively unknown prior to his role, as best supporting actor.

At imdb.com, the user ratings are generally high, and are consistent across all demographics. Women over 45 like it best, presumably partly due to the sizable (and idealized) supporting roles of Woods' wife Wendy (Penelope Wilton) and her comely oldest daughter Jane (Kate Hardie).

How I felt about it. Although Cry Freedom is a very good film, its inherent quality is undoubtedly secondary to its political importance. The Apartheid government of South Africa only ceded to majority rule after foreign governments imposed trade sanctions on the nation because of its internal treatment of blacks. South Africa became increasingly isolated and boycotted throughout the 1980s, and Cry Freedom played a part in that effort. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and was elected President of that nation four years later.

A common complaint made against the film is that it is about Donald Woods, who is decidedly less interesting than Steve Biko. The basis of this complaint is that the 157 minute film can be divided into two different movies of made-for-television length, the first of which features Denzel Washington as the second lead, while the second half has Washington only in snippet flashbacks. The first part is about Biko conscripting Woods into the movement for black majority rule. This has more appeal than the remainder of the movie, which is devoted to Woods' undercover escape to England.

In truth, however, there is little difference in quality between the two halves, even though they are principally based on two different books by Woods, Biko and an autobiography. The the first half is handicapped slightly by elements of propaganda that limit its credibility. The most blatant example of this occurs when Biko slaps his burly white interrogator, who responds as if he has been hit with the shock wave of an explosion. However eloquent Biko may have been, he was not Superman.

The second half mostly avoids this problem until it concludes with a depiction of the 1976 Soweto riots that is reminiscent of the famous Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. Although it does seem that Donald Woods is the inverse of Will Rogers: apart from his initial comeuppance from Dr. Ramphele, he never met a black person who didn't like him.