In the almost thirty years since its theatrical release, Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom (1987) has lost none of its dramatic intensity; a scathing indictment of South African Apartheid, and the unlikely bond of friendship established between two men of varying opinion and background, yet of one mindset to expose and liberate their nation from the blight of its politically-sanctioned racial oppression. Cry Freedom is a monument to a sort of unbiased film-making creed lost to us in the decades since. Too many movies made today, endeavoring to stand up to a social injustice – racial or otherwise – are merely ‘angry’ pictures, arguably, made by ‘angry film makers’ whose rage has conquered their artistry as well as their better judgment; the net result, movies too preachy about the social injustice and thus, far less ‘entertaining’ than ‘indoctrinating’. The contemporary slant in movie-making is likewise hampered by an inexplicable loss of ability to merely tell a good story pictorially and let the chips fall where they may, allowing the audience to have an opinion, yet with an uplifting dénouement that both elevates the subject matter and, in tandem, directs the audience’s spirit and hope toward a more positive ‘message’. If anything, new film makers should reconsider that their craft is not meant to teach – directly, that is – but rather, to thinly coat their ‘pill’ with sugar so that the lesson – if one is so inclined to recognize it as such – is learned almost by accident or as an afterthought.
Cry Freedom is the exception to this rule; one of many made throughout the 1980’s, a decade, having lived through it, and, readily found great pleasures – and lessons – to be derived from that weekly pilgrimage to my local movie house, I increasingly lean on and regress to on rainy/snowy afternoons or, more directly, at any particular moment in my life when I could distinctly use a good ‘pick me up’. Attenborough’s vision for Cry Freedom elevates and nurtures the soul. He tells his story with unvarnished sentiment, unapologetic about its glaring racial prejudices, but even more keen to deliver exaltation and, equally, a meditation on the incongruity of man’s altruistic – and less than – motivations when forming opinions about his fellow man. Cry Freedom is cut from an artistic cloth truer still to these true-to-life experiences, viewed through the eyes of two legendary advocates on opposite sides of an already well-drawn battle line, united in their fight against racial inequality. It is a movie that correspondingly educates, as it entertains and informs. It illustrates a hard, unsympathetic truth in a way that is both heartfelt and genuinely tragic, and yes, moving; and it does all this from the vantage of being ‘just a movie’ – simply an entertainment, something to whittle away an hour or two in the air-cooled communal comforts of a darkened room. The strength of the story is captured in two riveting performances; Denzel Washington, ideally cast and utterly magnificent as freedom fighter, Steven Biko, and Kevin Kline, superbly realized as liberal newspaper editor, Donald Woods. The unlikely alliance formed between these men will ultimately cost one his life and shatter the ensconced principles of the other, shifting the balance of power of an entire nation brutally torn by racial strife.
By 1987, Richard Attenborough had established his preeminence in the movies, both in front of and behind the camera with an impressive – if slightly uneven roster of achievements. As an actor, Attenborough was highly regarded. As a director, he would have something more of an uphill challenge. Indeed, taken in their totality, the movies he directed are a curious lot, beginning with the cynical, Oh, What a Lovely War (1969) and topped off by the introspective WWII melodrama, Closing the Ring (2007). In between these inauspicious bookends, Attenborough achieved great success with his Oscar-winning Gandhi (1982) but endured the cataclysmic failure in his dismantling the lithe spirit of Broadway’s A Chorus Line with a disastrously leaden 1985 film reincarnation. But he also made the poignant mid-life reaffirming romance, Shadowlands (1993), and continued to occasionally crop up in popular fare as diverse as Jurassic Park (1993) and Kenneth Branagh’s all-star adaptation of Hamlet (1996). Of all these aforementioned experiences, in tone and artistic temperament, Cry Freedom bears a striking resemblance to Gandhi. In hindsight, perhaps, this was part of the reason for its’ tepid box office and negative critical response; Attenborough’s stand-alone, inexplicably misjudged as a moralizing ‘follow-up’, guilty precisely of the sort of ‘preaching’ that leaves most audiences unrewarded for their time spent in dark. Yet, Cry Freedom goes well beyond the obvious parallels of political/social injustices addressed in Gandhi; more astutely aligned to Attenborough’s then prevailing convictions against the European colonization of the Dark Continent. Cribbing from Donald Wood’s novel, John Briley’s screenplay is supremely respectful of the powder keg it is about to detonate, treading lightly – but steadily – and with unflinching resolve that, again, never oversteps its boundaries as an ‘entertainment’. The lesson is there for anyone with eyes to plainly acknowledge. But the journey toward ‘truth’ is peppered in expertly crafted dramatics, even more satisfyingly realized by its two stars, and, buttressed by a level of edifying craftsmanship behind the camera. Ronnie Taylor’s cinematography extols the stark contrast between the lushly tropical enclaves where the white-bred affluent city dwellers live and the unspeakably grim, grey and unsanitary hovels that surround it.
Cry Freedom’s premise is loosely structured on the true story of Steve Biko (Denzel Washington), a charismatic South African leader of the Black Consciousness Movement who was murdered by police for his peaceful advocacy against Apartheid. Prior to his untimely death, Biko befriended liberal newspaper editor, Donald Woods (Kevin Kline). In the days before the worldwide media began to embrace the call against this social injustice, Biko’s political activism was responsible for drawing Afrikaners from disparate tribes into a united front, steadily growing in numbers to oppose the government’s legal enforcement of Apartheid. “When I was a student, trying to qualify for the jobs you people will let us have,” Biko explains to Woods, “I suddenly realized that it wasn't just good jobs that were white. The only history we read is made by the white man, written by the white man; television, cars, medicines - all invented by the white man, even football. It's not hard to believe there's something inferior about being born black.”
The most common critical accusation levied against Cry Freedom in 1987 was that Attenborough’s opus magnum had leaned to far; to more than a trifle pontificating, his ‘message’ heavy-handed and even unintentionally ludicrous. Yet, it is saying much of Denzel Washington’s performance that whatever these narrative shortcomings (if, in fact, they exist), Biko’s lengthy speeches never degenerate into angry diatribes, but play as lyrical tomes that capture the essence and the spirit of the real freedom fighter’s overriding charisma. When Washington addresses the court with “My lord, blacks are not unaware of the hardships they endure or what the government is doing to them. We want them to stop accepting these hardships - to confront them. People must not just give in to the hardship of life. They must find a way, even in these environments to develop hope - hope for themselves, hope for this country. Now, I think that is what black consciousness is all about. Not without any reference to the white man. To try to build up a sense of our own humanity - our legitimate place in the world,” the scene, as well as the courtroom, seems to crackle with a spark of social awareness that is unrehearsed; the actor’s inner sense of pride counterbalanced by an outwardly calm rectitude, not altogether strangely upsetting to the status quo. Biko’s aspirations are so genuine, so undiluted and so fraught with the prospect of achieving social change peaceably that they startle the white aristocracy who view him as nothing less – or even better – than an overreaching catalyst whose ultimate goal is the total dismantling of their authoritarian rule. Yet Biko is a man not unlike Martin Luther King in his motivations and in his campaigning for peaceful reform. Nevertheless, peace and autocracy are poor bedfellows and very quickly we come to realize the way of Biko’s cause – despite his sheer eloquence and articulation – are certain to bring about his untimely demise.
Brought before a magistrate on yet another trumped up charge, the judge’s condescending inquiry “Why do you people call yourselves black? You look more brown than black,” is met with poetic disdain as Biko astutely pointed out, “Why do you call yourselves white? You look more pink than white.” Repeatedly harassed and finally arrested, Biko is brutalized by police and left for dead in his cell. But not before he has broken his story to Woods who thereafter undertakes to tell it to the world at great peril to his own life and that of his family. The last act of Cry Freedom is a steadily mounting indictment of South Africa’s complicit parliament; of the hypocrisies of institutionalized racism blindly upheld by the status quo despite its even more transparent injustices as the very benchmark of maintaining ‘law and order’. Biko’s murder is necessary to propel the rest of the story forward. But it does leave the last act of our story modestly unbalanced. We lose Denzel Washington’s enigmatic screen presence, generously compensated for by Kevin Kline’s introspective and understated presence as Donald Woods; a man whose own moral compass has begun to point away from the status quo.
It is perhaps interesting to note that at the time Cry Freedom went before the cameras neither Denzel Washington nor Kevin Kline were, as yet, considered stars. Washington had been a regular of TV’s popular ensemble hospital drama, St. Elsewhere (1982-88) while Kline sporadically appeared in such high profile movies as The Pirates of Penzance and, more notably, The Big Chill (both in 1983), yet, seemingly lacking the ‘breakout’ to propel his career any further. It would take the featherweight English farce, A Fish Called Wanda (1988) to transform Kline’s reputation into that of an easily marketable commodity on both sides of the Atlantic. In retrospect, Cry Freedom launched both actors into the stratosphere of their respective stardom and careers. The movie’s success was not immediate; nor was Washington or Kline recognized for their work. Yet, Cry Freedom marks a moment when each man achieved a level of craftsmanship in their respective careers that has since made both actors a household name. As for the real Donald Woods: the South African government banned him from publishing his articles and made not so subtle threats that forced him and his family into exile. Narrowly escaping abroad, Woods picked up Biko’s cause, shining an unflattering spotlight on South Africa’s shadowy autocracy. In 1978, Woods pressured the world to take notice with his powerful biography: Biko, an exposé that blew the lid off corruption and complicity of the state police in the activist’s murder. The book’s publication in Britain, as well as Woods’ autobiography, Asking For Trouble, published that same year, caused an uproar in the United Nations Security Council, responding swiftly with an arms embargo against South Africa. The stirring of this pot into a popular zeitgeist also captivated Attenborough and ultimately becoming the basis for Cry Freedom. Owing to the political volatility in South Africa, principal photography on Cry Freedom commenced in Zimbabwe and Kenya instead, with interiors shot at Shepperton Studios back in England.
In hindsight it remains a genuine pity Cry Freedom was not a commercial success; its $29 million budget dwarfed by its relatively anemic $5,899,797 gross. Yet, the picture’s stature has only managed to grow since. Apart from the aforementioned performances from Washington and Kline, Cry Freedom is visually compelling; Ronnie Taylor’s cinematography doing a very fine job of contrasting the stark poverty of the Soweto ghettos with the lush vibrancy of the white neighborhoods, filling the screen with some truly breathtaking natural scenery as Woods and his family make their harrowing sojourn to freedom via a twin-engine biplane. George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa’s original score is an intoxicating blend of traditional chants and understated film composition, seamlessly blended to achieve an aural verisimilitude that remains the perfect complement. Within a year of Cry Freedom's theatrical release the scandal that was Apartheid had degenerated into a global embarrassment for the local government, altering the political landscape and serving as a precursor for the release of imprisoned patriot, Nelson Mandela. Viewed today, Cry Freedom serves as a memorable time capsule of a very unflattering moment in history; a fairly accurate snapshot of a grotesque social injustice never again to see the light of day.
By now, Cry Freedom ought to have found its way to Blu-ray. With the 30th anniversary of its theatrical debut just around the corner, I would sincerely encourage Universal Home Video to get off its creative lump and reissue this movie in hi-def. If there is room for the woefully misguided The Wiz and Xanadu on Blu-ray from Universal, then Cry Freedom definitely has a chance to be rediscovered as a far more compelling, enriching and enveloping movie experience. Universal’s DVD is, in a word, disastrous. The widescreen image has not been anamorphically enhanced. Indeed, this was one of Universal’s first ignoble efforts, unceremoniously stamped to disc back in DVD’s infancy and never given the necessary upgrade in a re-release. There’s really no point in going beyond in this review – Cry Freedom needs a new transfer – preferably, in 1080p and, of course, anamorphic. What we have here are anemic colors and weaker than anticipated contrast levels. Fine detail lacks and certain scenes are extremely digitally harsh in appearance. The audio is mere stereo surround – adequate, though hardly outstanding. Bottom line: this is a film 'crying out' for remastering effort. Without question, it is a worthy contender for that honor. Bottom line: not recommended. But seriously, folks. This movie needs to be seen more readily and with greater fanfare than it has been given. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)