The Struggle Goes to Hollywood

By HRW

Vol. 9, No. 5, 1987, p. 39

In the eyes of a South African filmmaker who has seen Cry Freedom while visiting the United States recently, Richard Attenborough's epic film about Donald Woods and Stephen Biko is a technical success but flawed in its judgment.

From her perspective, the film, which is currently drawing large audiences in major U.S. cities, has the welcome potential of showing millions the crushing reality of apartheid, but it obscures the basis of Biko's life and, ultimately, the reasons he died.

"I'm very positive about the actual film. It is beautifully made and Denzel Washington is extremely good as Biko. Kevin Kline also gives a good performance as Woods. But Cry Freedom is about the education of a white liberal, not about Steve Biko and his role in South Africa."

She believes that Woods, by structuring his book Asking For Trouble as he did, and Attenborough, by using woods's book as the basis for Cry Freedom, have done "the antithesis of what Steve stood for. The story of Woods may be heroic, but not compared to that of Biko and other blacks who seldom have the opportunities to express their own stories."

Shaun Johnson, reviewing the film in the Nov. 20-26 issue of the Weekly Mail, a dissident newspaper published in Johannesburg, arrives at essentially the same point but is less critical of Attenborough. "Cry Freedom is surely the biggest-budget, widest-angled, most-marketed anti-apartheid statement the world has ever seen, and is likely to see for quite some time. It is beautifully crafted. It is Donald Wood's story, played under the shadow of Steve Biko."

Johnson observes that Attenborough has produced a "story for foreigners and the reaction of someone in the midlands or midwest is what will decide its fate...in Cry Freedom, the struggle goes to Hollywood, or, more correctly, Hollywood goes to Harare."

The South African filmmaker said the American audience she was with appeared to react powerfully to Cry Freedom. "It's terrific that the film is going to be shown. Audiences will know a great deal more about Biko and about prison, torture and the absolute ruthlessness of apartheid. The security police in the film are marvelously authentic in that sense. But in terms of how Attenborough has structured the film, it may upset many black South Africans who have grown tired of their lives being portrayed through the experiences of whites."

On that basis, the film can be criticized as a reflection of the evil it attempts to illuminate. The question is whether it was proper for Attenborough to use a white character to tell a black story. The director has responded to such criticism by saying he couldn't raise $22 million to tell Biko's story, which merely feeds the argument.

Weekly Mail reviewer Johnson liked the film for what it is, saying "Biko's full story, will (and must) be recorded elsewhere. Let this slice stand."

The South African filmmaker wishes Attenborough had been more courageous. "I think the error lies in misreading the responses of the world's audiences. It is the role of the filmmaker to advance new insights. Biko's personality, his youth, his humor, his image, would have carried a film. The western world would have accepted him as a hero, though ironically neither he nor the black consciousness movement wanted heroes at all. They were quite an extraordinary group of people. Biko was an outstanding figure, but others had equally good contributions."

Despite her reservations, she applauds Attenborough's skill in making a superb movie, which arrives at a time when it is much needed.

"At the moment we have a state of emergency in South Africa and Americans are getting no news. It is against the law to film any police or security action without official permission. The fact is, there are still thousands in prison and the security police can still pick up anybody they like anytime they please. One needs to remind people that it is happening still and Cry Freedom is a timely replacement for the sort of news that ought to be coming out of South Africa."

Among the most powerful of the film's images are the names scrolling across the screen at the end, listing eighty other activists besides Biko who have died over the past decade from "suicide" or "falling down stairs" while in the hands of security police.

In late November, South African censors made the surprising and welcome announcement that Cry Freedom could be shown uncut in South Africa. Some apartheid watchers interpret the move as a gamble on the part of the Botha government to win points abroad by trying to show that the film will have minimal adverse effect in South Africa.