Cry Freedom (1987)

Cry Freedom
Director: Richard Attenborough
Writer: John Briley
Based on: the autobiographical books by Donald Woods
Cast: Kevin KlineDenzel WashingtonPenelope WiltonKevin McNallyJohn ThawJosette SimonJohn MatshikizaTimothy WestJohn HargreavesZakes Mokae
Seen on: 10.4.2017

Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) is a journalist in South Africa. He’s part of the white establishment, but despite his own critical views of the black population’s struggles for equality and freedom, he is professional enough to listen what they have to say. When he meets Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) in person, he is finally convinced of the worthiness of their cause. After Biko is killed in police custody, Woods writes a book about him that brings a lot of trouble to himself and his family.

Cry Freedom is a film about an important and fascinating issue with a great cast that, unfortunately, chose the wrong perspective to tell its story. It could have been so much more if it had actually been about Biko and his activism, and not Biko’s effect on a white man.

It is simply astounding, and not in a good way, what happened with Steve Biko and the entire anti-Apartheid movement – and what is still happening today. Biko must have been an exceptional person, and the film and Washington’s magnetic performance eloquently make that point. Woods, in comparison, is bland (although Kline is good, too). So it did take me by surprise when the film went on for quite a while after Biko’s death, really only kicking off then.

Choosing Woods as the main character was a problem, not only because it meant that huge parts of the film have to make do without Biko, the central draw of the film. It also means that the story about the beginning of the end of Apartheid is shown as the story of a white guy who really suffers due to the politics, albeit because he’s on the right side of history.

That perspective also meant that the grander scope of things – the demonstrations and resistance by many black people around the country – that were kicked off by Biko in part, always felt forced into the film and not actually a part of the story.

Nevertheless, Cry Freedom is a well-made and touching film that is very well-researched (probably not surprising, given Woods’ background as a journalist, his personal involvement in the events themselves and that he worked as an advisor on the film). I don’t see how you wouldn’t be affected by obvious injustice that the film shows.

Summarizing: Interesting, and maybe a good starting point to get into the issue.

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