Director: Richard Attenborough
Entertainment grade: C+
History grade: C
Along with Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko was one of the most important anti-apartheid leaders in mid-20th century South Africa.
Liberal newspaper editor Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) has convinced himself that Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) is an anti-white racist. Biko has been "banned" by the regime – meaning that he cannot associate with more than one person outside his immediate family at any one time, nor travel outside a specific area. Woods goes to meet him. In the film, Woods politely objects to Biko's message, and Biko responds with a gentle sermon on the plight of black South Africans. It's considerably toned down from the authentic version recounted in Woods's memoir, in which Woods lost his temper, shouting: "I don't have to bloody well apologise for being born white!" Biko's real-life response was good-natured, but more powerful and confrontational than the one in the film. He explained that he tried to discourage hatred of any sort, but his priority was to liberate black people – not to worry about the hurt feelings of white liberals. Director Richard Attenborough, much lauded for the Gandhi he created, projects an almost identical personality on to this icon. But the Gandhian in South Africa was Mandela, not Biko.
"We don't want to be forced into your society," says Biko. "I'm going to be me as I am, and you can beat me or jail me or even kill me, but I'm not going to be what you want me to be." But while the film lets Biko say that, it strives to present him as it wants him to be – humble, chaste, non-violent – not who he was. The real Biko spoke fierily, wittily and colloquially, peppering his speech with "hey, man". In the film, Biko talks like a slightly dull vicar from Suffolk. The real Biko's simultaneous long-term relationships with a wife and a lover, not to mention dalliances with many other women, are all but airbrushed out. "One cannot give a full account of the personality of Steve without mentioning his powerful sexuality," the real Woods wrote. The film tries, and is the poorer for it. So this movie, honouring a black hero who staked his identity on refusing to conform to white liberal expectations, redesigns him ... to conform to white liberal expectations. Oops. Alanis Morrissette, if you're reading – this is actually ironic.
Woods goes to the country garden estate of police minister Jimmy Kruger (John Thaw, who is superb). Woods asks Kruger to lay off persecuting Biko. Kruger plays nice at the time, but later secretly turns on Woods – sending the police after him instead. Meanwhile, Biko is arrested. He sustains a suspicious head injury, and dies in custody. Shamelessly, the authorities claim he did it himself, with a hunger strike. "Biko's death leaves me cold," Kruger snarls at a press conference. This line, unpleasantly enough, is accurate. The pronunciation is not. Almost everyone in the cast (except Washington) mispronounces the name Biko. The man himself said it bee-core, to rhyme with "seesaw" – not bee-koh, to rhyme with "neato".
Woods, too, is banned by the regime. He eventually flees the country. At the very end of the film, he has a flashback to the Soweto uprising where, on 16 June 1976, police opened fire on protesting school students. Recreated here, the scenes of the massacre are devastating. They are also jarring, because they're so much more dramatic than the last hour of the film, which has focused on how Woods slipped past his ban and got out of South Africa. Certainly, Woods's experience was remarkable. But when the viewer is suddenly presented with hundreds of children being shot in the streets, you've got to wonder whether "white guy escapes" is the story most in need of telling here.
A well-meaning film about the white liberal experience in South Africa – but, if you want to know about Steve Biko, look elsewhere.
This recreation of the brutal, tragically premature death of a young man marked out to be one of black South Africa's great leaders, and the conversion of a woolly white liberal to an active anti-Apartheid crusader, is a worthy piece of drama.
Powerful in its political message, Cry Freedom is also a thoroughly gripping piece of cinema, offering two stunning central performances from Washington and Kline. John Briley's screenplay pays full due to Biko's sense of humour as well as putting across his radical black consciousness message, and the dialogue is sharp, tender and ironic, clarifying the background to events and illuminating the unusual relationship which developed between two men of totally different backgrounds and philosophies.
Attenborough has captured the climate of events during a particularly fraught period in South Africa with remarkable authenticity. Of all the films about that country made elsewhere (this one in Kenya and Zimbabwe), Cry Freedom is so far the most successful in evoking the look and the atmosphere of the real thing.
If the last third of the film, dealing with the escape of the Woods family, is a little soft-centred and drawn outmore of a traditional escape adventure than hard-hitting realitythe movie is packed with enough scenes of dramatic interest, power and emotion to more than compensate.
Only stony hearts won't be moved by Attenborough's vivid, if occasionally sentimental, evocation of a great well of human potential cruelly snubbed out.