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Cry Freedom (1987)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“The true story of the friendship that shook South Africa and awakened the world.”

Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) was a dynamic and charismatic young black leader in South Africa in the 1970s. Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) was a middle aged white liberal newspaper editor, also in South Africa in the 1970s. Cry Freedom is Richard Attenborough’s movie of the true story of their meeting, developing friendship, surrounding conflict in South Africa and the consequences of their actions.

The movie begins by showing a military/police invasion of a black settlement in the Republic of South Africa in 1975. After the invasion, the settlement is destroyed by bulldozers and its people dispossessed. Later, after publishing a story on activist Steve Biko accusing him of black racism, Woods meets Dr. Ramphele (Josette Simon) who is a reader of his newspaper, but radically disagrees with Wood’s assessment of Steve Biko. She convinces Woods to meet Biko.

Biko has been “banned.” This means that he can only be with members of his immediate family or meet with only one other person at a time. He can not legally address a crowd, or even hold a conversation with two non-family members. Woods and Biko meet and discuss Biko’s ideas on black pride and independence from the dominating white South African culture and state. As they get to know each other better the two men develop a growing respect and friendship.

Biko tours Woods through a black township showing apartheid and its consequences. Biko is arrested for violating his banning and is shown in court debating with the prosecuting lawyers and judges. Biko advocates peaceful but resolute resistance to the injustice of the state and dominant culture to which the black South African majority is subjected. He disarms his antagonists with words in open court. Words such as the following -- Judge: "Why do you people call yourselves black? You look more brown than black." Steve Biko: "Why do you call yourselves white? You look more pink than white."

After Woods observes Biko and his fellow activists for a while, he hires a few of them to work at his newspaper. This action and others like it taken by both Biko and Woods challenge many shibboleths of the dominant white South African culture. The resulting consequences for all are what form the balance of the movie.

Cry Freedom is a depiction of the horribly unjust system of apartheid which once held in the Republic of South Africa. It shows with brutal honesty just how evil and corrupt that system was. It also shows the individual heroism of the people which eventually defeated it. That would be enough for me to recommend the movie. However, Cry Freedom is more than that.

Cry Freedom is also a movie about the modern police state. Enforcing a system like apartheid can no longer be done (if it ever could be done) with merely social pressure and cultural conventions. The power and force of the state through police and military enforcement of legislation is required. There is no shortage of demonstrations in this movie of the inevitable abuse of state power. Although individual villains exist in the story, the central villain is the state system enforcing apartheid: a system which necessarily did away with civil liberties and due process. Although that system was mainly oppressive to the native black African majority, it also reserved special attention for those white South Africans who worked to bring justice to their society.

Like many other stories set in police states, such as Casablanca and White Nights, Cry Freedom is also a story of escape to freedom. Although all the main characters do not reach a happy end, some do. We also know that in the end apartheid, as it previously existed in South Africa, was defeated. However, there are some sad ironies associated with this film. It was filmed in Zimbabwe. When Cry Freedom was made Zimbabwe may have seemed like a hopeful place to film such a movie. I doubt that this film could be made in Zimbabwe today as it now has a very similar police state, with the difference that a black African is the current leader. There are many fine performances in this film, but the real “star” is the story itself. I hope you view and enjoy Cry Freedom.

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