Saturday, March 16, 2013

Cry Freedom (1987)

Thinking of past movie memories brings me back to this going-away party held for my good friend, Tia. For the first 30 or 40 minutes, the guests watched the English dub of Princess Mononoke. I hadn’t previously seen it and I found myself finding the dubbing laughable and not really getting sucked into it. After the aforementioned time, the film was turned off. Months later, I watched it on my own. It was the original Japanese version that I viewed at home and I found myself absolutely in love with it. Now why the hell am I talking about this? Because I’m trying to make a point that some films get better after one or more repeated viewings. Cry Freedom falls under this category of films. Mildly.

The film opens in an effectively cold manner. Via extremely minimal lighting and black-and-white photos, it depicts the then-current turmoil of black South Africans. It shows them in slums that end up getting demolished by white South African cops, who claim that they are illegal. After that scene, we meet our main character, Donald Woods, a liberal, successful journalist, played by Kevin Kline. How do I know he’s successful? Because he has the classic 1980s working man look: stupid glasses.

Yet his character arc begins as a misguided man as he publishes an article about black activist Steven Biko, where he views Biko as an enemy. An angry black woman confronts Woods about the article. She tells Woods, “You are not a fool. You are uninformed.” Because of this statement, Woods decides to meet Biko, played by Denzel Washington, and through Biko, Woods realizes the hardships of black South Africans, along with the frustratingly persistent corruption of the police and the government. After the police beats Biko to death in jail and the truth about his death is not revealed to the general public, Woods decides to take matters into his own hands and spread the news, thus spreading awareness of Biko. This leads to an odyssey of bravery and complexity, as he tries to escape South Africa.

I mentioned the Princess Mononoke memory previously. Well, watching 1987’s Cry Freedom for the second time (I missed part of it due to a prior obligation and I needed to watch it again) reminded me of watching another movie: Hachi: A Dog’s Tale from 2010. During that movie, Hachi is a dog whose owner dies and yet continues to wait at the train station where he would meet up with his owner when he came home from work. At first, I wanted to remove the dog from the train station and leave it in the care of another family member. Then, I found out that this wasn’t just scripted movie nonsense. That actually happened. That historical context made the film better. That is the same case with Cry Freedom, minus the dog.

I mentioned that after Biko dies, Woods takes matters in his own hands and intends to spread the word about Biko and the circumstances that killed him, which leads to a journey of him trying to escape South Africa. At first, I felt that this part of the film and even a few scenes beforehand were deathly sluggish and Caucasian-centric. I felt that too much emphasis was put on how apartheid affects Woods and little emphasis on the effect of apartheid on black South Africans. I also noticed that the editing in this section was extremely awkward. Flashbacks seemed incompetently shoehorned in. Also, I felt that the originally evocative lighting began to grow dismal.

However, after remembering the fact that all of this really happened, the film, which at that point was starting to lose me, eventually won me over. After it had won me over, it didn’t seem sluggish anymore. I now felt that the Caucasian-centric aura of this section was actually apt because it shows that while not all people are in the same situation, the ones who aren’t can certainly feel for the ones that are. I already thought that Kevin Kline’s performance was good. While his simplistic character arc kinda held him back, he still pulled off a ferocious intensity. However, in this section of the film, there was a determination and hardiness about his character/performance that clicked with me. Also, the flashbacks didn’t seem all that misplaced anymore. I also realized that the lighting still remained dismal, but the other positive aspects make up for that.

My opinion of the ending changed, too (spoiler alert). At the very end, Woods, along with his family, gets on a plane (resulting in some great POV camera shots), escape South Africa, and go off to England to spread the news about the horrors in South Africa. However, we never seem them arrive at England. The plane disappears into the distance and we are given a list of black South African prisoners who died in prison and the false excuses the police gave for their death. My original thought was, “That was it? You spent the whole last third trying to get to England to spread the word and you aren’t even going to show him spreading the word?!?! I guess this was all about the white man, huh?” Eventually, though, I realized that when this film was released, apartheid in South Africa hadn’t ended yet. The movie was trying to say that no matter how powerful his words were, they could not solely ignite the shift towards freedom for black South Africans. South Africa still had a lot of work to do. That additional historical context added a haunting yet hopeful quality about the film that utterly impressed me.

However, there are some other flaws I can bring up that can’t be justified. First of all, Woods’ family, especially his wife, are absolutely dull characters. They add extremely little emotion into the film and they aren’t charming, funny, or captivating in the slightest. Second of all, this film feels like too different kinds of films: a PBS telefilm and a carbon copy of director Richard Attenborough’s previous film, Gandhi. It’s a PBS telefilm in terms of its sanitation, execution, and in its directness. Consider a scene where the police take Biko into custody for giving an illegal speech at a soccer (or football, what have you) game. At the end of the scene, one of the officers says, “I’m gonna catch you red-handed one day!” This is an utterly laughable line. It feels more at home in a Smokey and the Bandit film than in this film.

I also mentioned that this film feels like a carbon copy of Gandhi. First and foremost, Gandhi is one of the most ambitious and grandest biopics I’ve ever seen. Every scene is filled with widely framed cinematography, which is chocked full of great crowd scenes, exhilarating storytelling, brilliant speeches, and the devout, transformed soul of Ben Kingsley. It’s one of my favorite films. Cry Freedom has a lot of great crowd scenes that are expertly framed and a few speeches, but they feel too similar to Gandhi. I don’t call it a nod to Gandhi; I call it mechanical, forced, and derivative.

However, there are two exceptional elements of this film. I quoted a line from the film earlier and as you could see, the dialogue is, for the most part, well written. However, there are moments of dialogue that are searingly, penetratingly wry and honest. I don’t have any specific examples, but they are present and one who watches the film can definitely see it. The other exceptional element of the film is Denzel Washington as Biko (yeah, sorry about side-stepping him). When we first see Biko, we actually don’t see his face. It’s a shot that’s delightfully mysterious yet overdone, as if Biko is trying to be depicted as a pseudo-mystical deity. However, we do end up seeing the face of Denzel. We also discover his charismatic, sharp, and sly performance where he adopts a smile that’s simultaneously tender and roguish. These two elements plus the fact that most of the flaws become strengths definitely make up for some of the film’s perpetual flaws.

RATING: Three stars out of four

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