Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom is in the same league as his award-winning Gandhi (1982) – a rare, uplifting film that manages to thrill and excite its audience, glueing you to your seat and teaching you something at the same time about the world you live in.
It’s the true story of Steve Biko (played by Denzel Washington), leader of the oppressed black nations in South Africa, who was imprisoned without trial and tortured to death in police custody in 1977.
It’s also the harrowing story of Donald Woods (Kevin Kline), a white newspaper editor brave and honest enough to risk his life to ferret out the truth.
With an ugly racist state as the backdrop, the friendship that developed between these two opposing forces changed their lives. Biko showed Woods how black men live under the horror of apartheid-banned, segregated, little more than slaves – and as Biko educated Woods, Attenborough educates us all.
South Africa comes alive. The smells, the music, the sounds invade our senses while the vast canvas of life under dictatorship invades our consciences.
After Biko’s death, Woods was branded a traitor. Under house arrest, he and his wife found out what it was really like to be black in their own society of white supremacy.
Woods’s job was terminated, his children were almost killed. All he had left was his family and the book he planned to publish about the truth and he had to get them all out of the country.
The latter part of the film is about his daring escape, manuscript in hand, disguised as a priest. It has every element of a suspense thriller, but it’s doubly exciting because it’s true.
Kevin Kline gives the finest performance of his career as Woods – a man dedicated to education and freedom. Denzel Washington is inspired as the black martyr.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the movie was banned in South Africa.
Acting High Commissioner
Captain de Wet