FILM (1987)

Rewind film: Cry Freedom

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 5:12pm

Cry Freedom

Denzel Washington, Kevin Kline

Director: Richard Attenborough

Cry Freedom, the story of black activist Steve Biko and his friendship with newspaper editor Donald Woods during apartheid-era South Africa, was shot largely in Zimbabwe and released in 1987, a decade after Biko's suspicious death from a head injury while in police custody.

It's a harrowing film - director Richard Attenborough juxtaposes the squalor and crowded conditions of the townships with the lush lawns of the huge residences lived in by minister of justice Jimmy Kruger, while Woods' home isn't exactly a shack. The distinction between rich and poor, black and white, is clear.

Woods (played by Kevin Kline) opposes apartheid but he feels Biko is advocating his own prejudices and criticises him in editorials. He's invited to meet Biko and visit a black township. Biko is taking a huge risk here: he is only allowed to meet one person at a time, and must stay in his "banning area". Woods is gradually converted.

Viewing the film more than 25 years on, it's important to remember when it was shot. Attenborough can be irritating: this political film verges on Apartheid 101 at times. Still, it remains riveting in places - and ghastly when it comes to the police.

Attenborough powerfully conveys Biko's torture and death in custody - without using scenes of torture. Biko (Denzel Washington) lies face down in a cell, naked, with a doctor begging that a specialist treat his head injury. The police insist Biko is a flight risk and needs to be taken more than 1,120 kilometres to a police hospital. The mood is oppressive and terrifying.

After Biko's death, the film concentrates on Woods' escape - after he too is banned - to Lesotho. He is joined there by his family.

The escape is exciting, but perhaps more time should have been spent on the struggles in the townships after Biko's death. Attenborough uses flashbacks as we hear more dialogue from Biko, who was detained after an illegal trip to Cape Town. The director also shows the slaughter of hundreds of schoolchildren in Soweto in 1976 while they were campaigning against being forced to learn Afrikaans at school.

Washington gave a wonderful turn as Biko - although a little too messianic at times - and was nominated for the best supporting actor award at the 1988 Oscars. He was beaten by Sean Connery in The Untouchables, but would finally win the next year (for Glory).

Perhaps the most moving part of the film, and the most shocking, comes at the end in a list of black activists and their causes of death up to 1987: "fell against a chair", "fell 10 floors", "suicide", "by hunger strike". Biko's death was attributed to the last - despite an inquest ruling that he had died of brain damage. No one was ever held to account.

Annemarie Evans