Retro Review: Cry Freedom

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Director: Richard Attenborough

Writers: John Briley; Based on the novel by Donald Woods

Starring: Denzel Washington, Kevin Kline, Josette Simon

Rated: PG

Set in South Africa during the Apartheid regime of the 1970s, Cry Freedom tells the story of the real-life friendship between former political opponents Steven Biko and Donald Woods. As a story that revolves around the prejudice and segregation of race, particularly one that released so soon after the tragedies and atrocities it portrays, the film is, I think, an important part of cinematic history. Despite a poor box office showing upon release, Cry Freedom’s attempt to document these events enables viewers to get a sense of the perspectives surrounding racial issues during both its own era and the era it depicts.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Imagery: Police raids occur and citizens of raided areas are brutally beaten. A police gathering fires openly on a large protest consisting of unarmed children and blood is seen pooling on the back of victims’ shirts as they fall. Unconscious men who have obviously been beaten are shown on a couple of occasions.

Language/Crude Humor: G-dd–n is used a couple of times, while s–t and h-ll are used frequently.

Drug/Alcohol: Characters regularly consume beer and liquor socially. Several young adults, clearly drunk, are shown causing havoc briefly.

Spiritual Content: Some religious imagery is used, and one of the characters is a priest.

Sexual Content: During a raid, a police officer pushes a woman against a wall and rips part of her top off. A woman wears a swimsuit during one scene.

Other Negative Content: The protagonists break laws on several occasions in order to achieve their goals, though since the laws are clearly unjust and the police are corrupt, whether this is truly negative will depend on viewer interpretation. Racism, bigotry, and censorship are depicted but condemned.

Positive Content: Love for fellow humans as people rather than categories is a central theme. Seeking to understand those in different circumstances is exhorted.

Review

Creating a story that tackles an issue as big as racism, especially in a place like South Africa,  is not only a massive undertaking but a risky one. It must be willing to make its audience not only uncomfortable but unhappy. Antagonism towards your product is likely to be stirred up from all sides. To that end, it’s refreshing to look back on a film that approaches its brutal subject matter with the level of open-minded nuance and honesty to which Cry Freedom aspires. That being said, the movie falls victim to flaws that are rooted in the very prejudices it seeks to expose and condemn.

Cry Freedom follows the tale of the real-life friendship between anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko and newspaper editor Donald Woods. It sets itself up from the very beginning to have a journalistic feel to it, an attempt to capture and portray the harsh and unjust realities of Apartheid South Africa. The first thing that comes onscreen is a line of plain text, with no background, informing viewers that the people and events of the movie were real. Images from the opening sequence flash into black-and-white stills, as though being pictured in a newspaper. The journalistic aesthetic works well for enhancing audience reactions to the atrocities that are then shown, and at least at the beginning, it helps elevate the film to something much more than merely a source of information or entertainment.

The sense I got from this introduction is that Cry Freedom is meant to be a critique, not only of South African politics but of the prejudices inherent in many widespread worldviews. It wants to make audiences engage with both the ideas and the horrible events that it portrays, and for the better part of its runtime, it successfully does so.

There is a particularly excellent scene where Woods, conversing with a group of black shantytown citizens, mentions that some whites are working toward integration (of the segregated black and white communities). Biko and his peers respond by pointing out the white-favoring bias in the very way Woods phrases it. This was a moment that got me thinking more than any of the police beatings or government lies, and I believe that it’s a good representation of what this film is really about.

The film spends a lot of time delving into these sorts of ideas, such as the power and importance of language and the consequences of pursuing ideologies, and it’s at these times that Cry Freedom is at its absolute best. The onscreen injustices, rather than being played simply for shock value, are used to bring life to these topics and reveal the ugliness that often accompanies them in practice. However, as I’ve mentioned, the movie falls victim to a sort of bias of its own, and I’ll return to this thought in a moment.

First, I want to highlight the quality of the characterization and acting of the two protagonists. It’s easy to fall into the trap of typecasting or caricaturizing prominent figures, so I commend the effort of both Denzel Washington and the filmmakers to portray Biko as a real, rounded person in his own right, rather than as merely a representation of his ideas. Woods, as well, is written and played with a strong balance of intelligence, resolve, and naivete. The onscreen friendship between the two is believable while their disagreements remain poignant and thought-provoking. No one person or viewpoint is extolled at the expense of all others, which is crucial for this sort of film to work.

I mentioned above that, for most of the movie’s runtime, it is successful in asking the audience to engage with the subject matter and confront their own biases. But this mission is undermined significantly by the film’s own bias: it is targeted, after all, at a predominantly Western audience, and is therefore tuned to be palatable to that group. While it is no sin for a movie to have a target demographic, in this case, it is taken too far.

Shortly after the movie’s halfway point, the focus shifts away from the social issues and daily horrors that have previously been the crux of the story and is thrust entirely onto the character of Donald Woods himself. Most of the second half details his and his family’s attempt to escape South Africa. While this does make for a more intense and dramatic viewing experience, it does so at the cost of the movie’s purpose. Here, after so many scenes devoted to dissecting irreconcilable viewpoints and chipping away at various prejudices, a white character’s personal struggle becomes the center of attention. The cultural and political injustice that began as the foundational motivator for the film’s events is rapidly reduced to a backdrop for Woods’ story.

As a white viewer, the movie allowed me to feel far more comfortable than I wish it would have during this portion, and it weakened the impact of the movie’s excellent and challenging first half. At many points, in contrast to the aura of realism evoked during the film’s beginning, I now felt as though I was watching just another movie. Now disarmed of its initial teeth, the film descends, for a time, into mediocrity.

Upon watching this film, do I have a better sense of what went on in South Africa under the Apartheid rule? Well…not really, although this may be attributed to desensitization by the media in the later era in which I grew up. I have, though, become motivated to learn more, which is perhaps more powerful than simply being granted information. Have I gained new insight into the issue and history of racism, and an increased understanding of how I think about it? I’d have to say yes. Cry Freedom is a strong, honest film that falls prey to its own biases. Despite its flaws, however, it’s a movie that should exist. And it’s worth watching.

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Ian Hancock

Ian is a speculative fiction writer with an English degree from the University of the Fraser Valley. When he's not writing, he enjoys strategy games, sports, anime, and finding new ways to make fun of life.

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