Thursday, 28 February 2013

Cry Freedom (1987)

It strikes me with a tolling bell that it's a quarter of a century since I first began active regular cinemagoing - it began with The Mission to some degree, but my own conscious choice to go the cinema and see a film that interested me was Cry Freedom - a good choice. Another strong memory is that of the slightly quaint ritual (for a film of more than two and a half hour's length) of a now strange word appearing in the middle of Richard Attenborough's political drama at the Odeon Colchester Screen 2.

This was also the era - it seems astonishing to think now - when South Africa was still firmly entrenched in the grip of legal racial segregation. Astonishing now to think that such a thing could have existed, astonishing then to think that Apartheid could have been dismantled at all, by anything other than violent means. That it didn't was thanks to the likes of Nelson Mandela (freed at last in 1990 after 27 years imprisonment), the sustained pressure by those corporations and nations (who did not include Great Britain) that imposed sanctions on South Africa's wealthy economy, and also the slightly underrated F.W. de Clerk - South Africa's Gorbachev to some extent - who climbed down from his predecessors' extreme enforcement of Apartheid. And not least of all, from campaigners like Sir Richard Attenborough.

Attenborough of course, had made Gandhi, which featured a brief early sequence where the Mahatma begins his great crusade for freedom by fighting for rights for Indian immigrants. This "sequel" of sorts to Gandhi covered many of the same themes, transferring Gandhi's values into the rather more complex but charismatic figure of Steve Biko, played with dignity and style by Denzel Washington, a star in the making.

John Briley's screenplay also gave a winning portrayal of the human and heroic side of Steve Biko.

Biko's story is told from the perspective of Daily Dispatch editor Donald Woods, played by another emerging American star, Kevin Kline. There were those who criticised this notion of the Black Consciousness movement seen through the eyes of a white liberal perspective, although if anyone takes the trouble to watch the film this is a stance which Biko quickly mocks.

Nonetheless, mindful of the audience reaction (particularly in America) and the lack of focus on Biko's story, the makers chose late in post-production to reedit the film that began sequentially from Biko's struggle to Donald Woods', so that some of Biko's thoughts and experiences could be told in flashback by Woods during his escape from exile.

Crucially, this structure also leaves one of the major set pieces for the end: the infamous Soweto massacre in 1976. The impact of the massacre leaves an imprint on the mind. That, and the film's closing message, where the many hundreds of other victims besides Biko are listed, together with the "official" causes of death - a powerful indictment of a regime that at the time seemed immovable and invincible.

It is a fitting tribute to the film that Nelson Mandela himself thanked Attenborough years later, for awakening the world to the cruelty of Apartheid and bringing about its eventual downfall.

No comments:

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films