Cry Freedom was Richard Attenborough’s follow-up to his first big critical and box-office fiasco, his adaptation of the musical A Chorus Line. It’s very traditional Oscar bait, but it’s also undeniably a strong film at times… though at other times, not so much. It’s about the liberal journalist Donald Woods and his friendship with activist Steven Biko, who was at the forefront of the Black Consciousness Movement in apartheid South Africa.
The film has two distinctive halfs: there is the story of Biko which is far more interesting, and the story of Woods, which is less so. If you made the film today you would probably focus almost exclusively on Biko and his struggle against apartheid, which would take his life far too young. To explain Biko’s role in the anti-apartheid struggle in simple terms, he filled the void of Nelson Mandela for a period during Mandela’s decades-long imprisonment. Denzel Washington plays Biko and, as usual, is fantastic even if the South African accent seems a little dodgy—I’m not an expert, but it did sound a little off.
Kevin Kline plays Woods, and the first hour of the film is pretty fantastic. For what is essentially a big Hollywood film, it’s willing to go into the hypocrisy of white liberals. It’s mainly told through Woods’s eyes, with the focus on his friendship with Biko. The film never really goes deeper than the surface when looking into Biko’s beliefs and doesn’t even use the S word (socialist) once to accurately describe his politics. However, it’s a very impressive hour or so until Biko is brutally murdered by the state after being arrested.
The next 80 minutes(!) is the story of Woods, who soon after Biko’s murder was banned by the South African government from continuing his work as editor of the Daily Dispatch, a mostly liberal newspaper aimed at the White population of South Africa. His story is undeniably interesting, and his escape is very dramatic, but you could easily probably chop an hour out of the film and not miss much. When Woods finally escapes South Africa, there is something like another half an hour left to go! If the murder of Biko had been placed smack in the middle of the film, it would have fixed the pace up considerably; there are also a few flashbacks sprinkled into the film, which might have evened it out more if moved forward. Nonetheless, the film has no excuse for being around 160 minutes long.
Cry Freedom is a solid, workmanlike film that has a pretty impressive epic scope at times. It was mostly shot on location in Zimbabwe (South Africa was still under Apartheid rule). Attenborough was criticised for shooting there while the Gukurahundi genocide was happening, but he denies knowing about it at the time. Washington is what stands out, and his performance would earn him his first of many Oscar nominations. It’s one of Kline’s better performances as well, even if his accent is also a little off.
The Blu-Ray includes no extras of any kind, not even a trailer. The Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber in the US included a commentary from film historian Eddy Van Mueller, which would’ve been a welcome addition.