Cry, The Beloved Country  (1951/95)

The novel by Alan Paton is one I meant to read when I was younger but it was already old and I never got around to it.  The movie came out when I was not yet ten and I missed a generation’s early knowledge of the situation in South Africa.  This black and white film seems a literal rendering of the events in the novel and the starkness of style is fitting for its subject.  In the beginning we meet two older men, one a poor black minister in a country town, the other is a white landowner struggling to keep his farm prosperous.  Both men have sons that have gone off to Johannesburg.  The minister has also a daughter and she too has gone to the city.  He receives a letter bidding him to make a journey to the city.  He finds his daughter and she has fallen into prostitution.  He cannot find his son.  A priest (Sidney Poitier) from a city church helps the old man in his search of back alleys and shantytowns.  They find a young woman the son has abandoned; she is pregnant.  The son and some others break into a white man’s house for robbery and shoot the owner.  It is the son of the white farmer, who now must bring his wife to the city for the funeral.  They find an essay their son was writing about the deep injustices of the South African system.  The minister’s son is arrested and put in prison, where the father visits him.  He tries to make things right for his daughter and the woman his son abandoned.  The court sentences the son to be hanged while his accomplices are set free for lack of evidence.  The father arranges for his son to marry the abandoned girl and will bring her back to his home to help raise his grandchild.  The two fathers meet unexpectedly and there is tense forgiveness from the white father.  They all return to the country and the white farmer’s wife dies abruptly.  The minister sends flowers.  The white farmer, profoundly changed by all this, proposes to build a church in his wife’s memory and the black minister will preside in this sanctuary.  The black minister climbs a hill into the sunrise.  A print legend looks to a still distant dawn when equality comes to this troubled land.  Canada Lee brings extraordinary dignity to his role as the minister.  The message here is that the entire culture of black South Africa has been destroyed by the European occupiers and that many years of healing will be needed before the field is leveled.  As usual in this time, the situation is filtered through the consciences of white people of good will.  Would there ever have been a Hollywood movie of Things Fall Apart?

Cry, The Beloved Country  (1995)


Come Back Africa  (1960)

What began as a documentary became a dramatized document of life in Sophiatown, South Africa in the late 1950s.  White filmmaker Lionel Rogosin was influenced by Italian Neo-realism when he came from New York to oversee this project.  He was specifically in debt to DeSica (The Bicycle Thief) and Flaherty.  No professional actors were used in the film.  The story follows a man named Zacharia who leaves his home in Zululand and takes a circuitous route to Johannesburg in search of work.  His struggles are punctuated with scenes of street musicians and community rituals.  There is an affecting living room scene in which young Miriam Makeba joins the group and sings two of her songs.  This moment was preceded by a very strong discussion among a group of young men about the future of Africa.  In the end, Zacharia succumbs to tragedy.  There is a full synopsis on the TCM website.

A companion documentary called An American in Sophiatown, features many who were involved in the film talking about the struggle of making this movie.  There is talk of how Makeba went to America and became involved with Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando, neglecting her obligations to the film.  In 1960, soon after the film crew left, there was a massacre at Sharpeville (69 dead), which galvanized world opinion on Apartheid.  Sophiatown was razed in c. 1958 to make way for a white settlement.

In My Country  (2004) or, Country of My Skull

This is a very fine and important film. Juliette Binoche is a married Afrikaner woman with three children who takes a job as a radio commentator covering the truth and reconciliation hearings called for by Nelson Mandela upon his unseating of the former South African government. Her extended family is angry and afraid. At these sessions, she meets an African American reporter for the Washington Post (Samuel L. Jackson) who is cynical about the ability of the white establishment to look deeply at itself. As Binoche and Jackson fall inevitably into one another’s arms, they are drawn into unexpected realms of compassion. The commission travels throughout the country in a caravan. A high police official who is interviewed by Jackson leads them to a secret farm with cells and implements of torture in the basement. As former police officers confess to torture and murder for the promise of amnesty, it becomes clear that in the moment they felt they were doing their duty for their country. Now they must show that they were following orders from their superiors. They viewed native Africans as savages who threatened the existence of “their country” (just as Americans felt as they fought the Indians to near extinction). There are times when society asks its most brutal and uncaring citizens to defend its boundaries, both geographical and psycho-political. Usually these are men and sometimes they are sadistic and vengeful; other times they are motivated by a kind of unwavering honor. They believe they are doing what must be done, what other men will not do, to preserve the sanctity of their nation or community from outside threat. In movies, especially over the turning of the millennium, these men are often represented as heroes, committing mass murder and mayhem in the name of personal and collective freedom from peril. This movie takes the opposite approach, dissecting the experience of flawed individuals doing what they can to make positive contributions to human society in disequilibrium. The film was panned by the Washington Post as formulaic and it received criticism for including a love affair in a story about truth and reconciliation in South Africa. It seems to me, however, that the rationale for the love interest is included in the content of the film. It might be thought that the Washington Post would understand the need for a device to capture the attention of the movie-going public. These two actors become magnets for the dignity that rises up out of atrocity. The reality of the paradoxical South African situation is in plain view in the background. A print legend says that over 21,000 victims testified in the hearings and between one and two thousand “perpetrators” were given amnesty.

Red Dust  (2004)

The Wooden Camera  (2003)

Tsotsi  (2005)

After the Rain  (2006)

Beat the Drum  (2006)

Invictus   (2009)


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