Next up in Politic-a-thon is another film based around the politics of South Africa during apartheid, with the one I’m doing today going more into detail about life in South Africa for black activists and the white population who didn’t support apartheid and out of the films based around apartheid that I can think of, there is no better example than Cry Freedom.
The plot concerns the friendship between black activist Steve Biko and white newspaper owner Donald Woods. Initially, Woods only goes to Biko to see whether or not his editorial about him is correct but Biko shows Woods life in a black township and sees what life is really like for black people in South Africa. This in itself was dangerous for Biko as he was placed under a banning order meaning that he was confined to a certain area and it took a lot of planning for Biko to get away from the police officers watching him. Throughout everything, we see everything that the white population of South Africa puts Biko through, including arresting him for making speeches for equal rights. We also see that Biko, unlike other black activists in South Africa at the time, advocated a peaceful resolution to the issues. Through this, Woods and Biko become closer, with Woods trying to convince people high up in government to drop their campaign of hatred against Biko. However, Biko ends up getting arrested going to Cape Town and, whilst in prison, the white guards beat him so severely that Biko ends up dying of his injuries. Since the truth about Biko is covered up, Woods tries to make the world aware of Biko’s message but ends up being placed under a banning order himself and has to find a way to escape South Africa. What I really like is how the film goes into detail about everything that is happening to Biko, really putting you in his shoes and shows the intense brutality of apartheid. I also like that the film shows both the prejudice that white people had in South Africa but also the panic that they feel over hurting a major black figure, especially with the covering up of Biko’s death. I also like how the film shows the impact that Biko’s death has on the black community, with the funeral being one of the most moving things put to film. The film also fully goes into detail about how Woods escaped South Africa, by disguising himself as a priest and having to get to the border with Lesotho and we also see the way his family escapes, including having to leave their dog behind so the dog wouldn’t attract attention. The main thing I like though is that the film shows that what happened to Biko was not a unique incident, as shown by, before the credits, a list of the people who died in suspicious circumstances in prison in South Africa is shown and Biko’s name is halfway down and it also shows that attitudes towards race and the violence that people experience cannot be undone by a handful of people.
The performances in the film are also excellent. Kevin Kline brilliantly shows the transformation in Woods from someone who believes that Biko is doing massive damage to the country to someone who escapes South Africa to let the world know how he died. He brilliantly shows the fear that he feels over his family’s situation after the banning order and his commitment to black rights as the film goes on. Penelope Wilton is also great as Woods’ wife Wendy, also showing the fear that she feels over her family being harmed along with the worry over what Woods has gotten himself into. The best performance though comes from Denzel Washington as Biko. There’s this great deal of dignity and respect that Washington brings to the part and really makes you trust him. Whenever Biko speaks, the power that Washington puts behind the words make you pay attention to every single one and a lot of the comments he makes are really intelligent and insightful. He shows that, whilst the public image of Biko is one of a brutal oppressor and someone who wants to destroy the rights of the white population, he wants to see peace and through his tone of voice and his body language, we see Biko as a peaceful individual who, like so many other people in South Africa, didn’t deserve what happened to him.
Overall, Cry Freedom is an excellent film. Richard Attenborough’s direction, John Briley’s script and the excellent performances from Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington fully bring the story of Steve Biko and Donald Woods to life and shows that, even in the harshest system with dozens of deaths being covered up, there is always the need for people to take a stand against oppression.
My Rating: 5/5