Review by Eva Holland
Posted on 12 September 2007
Source MCA/Universal VHS
Thirty years ago today, Steve Biko was killed in detention by the South African police. He was a leading anti-apartheid activist of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and its accompanying organization, the Black People’s Convention (BPC). Cry Freedom is about Biko and his beliefs, and about the white journalist, Donald Woods, who befriended him in the last two years of his life.
Woods, whose book Biko was the inspiration for the film, was the editor of a liberal anti-apartheid paper in the South African city of East London. The movie opens with footage of an early-morning police raid on one of the black townships—all, it turns out, captured on film by one of Woods’ reporters. Woods – Kevin Kline with a highly dubious South African accent – runs the photos on the front page: “I want the police blamed for this,” he says, as he pores over the evidence of unprovoked police brutality.
A few minutes later we learn that the police may have been searching for a certain Steve Biko—and that Woods finds Biko’s views just as repulsive as the state’s. He runs an editorial about Black Consciousness in the same edition of the paper, essentially accusing Biko and his supporters of reverse racism. This was a common charge against BCM, and can still be heard even today. Biko rejected the support of white liberals in the fight for black equality, arguing that there could be no true partnership between blacks and whites so long as they lived within such a wildly unequal social structure. He did believe that partnership and cooperation were possible once equality had been achieved, but that vital caveat was missed, or ignored, by many of his critics.
At any rate, Woods’ editorial results in a very angry black doctor charging into his office. “That is not what Steve is about,” she says. “You are putting words in his mouth, and he cannot answer…” Biko had been banned from writing for publication, speaking in public, or meeting with more than one member of the public at once, and so the doctor asks Woods to come meet him to see for himself. Woods agrees, and his first evening with Steve Biko blossoms rapidly into a friendship. Through his interaction with Biko and other black activists, Woods learns firsthand about the hardships of township life, the intricacies of the system of passbooks, checkpoints, and banning areas, and the realities of police surveillance and brutality. His final lesson, of course, comes with Biko’s death in prison.
The movie has two distinct narrative arcs. The first chronicles the growing friendship between Woods and Biko alongside the government’s increased efforts to silence BCM, and peaks with Biko’s detention and death, while the second follows the Woods family in the aftermath of the murder: they move from being onlookers to targets themselves, and Woods eventually hatches an elaborate plan to escape the country with the manuscript for Biko in tow.
That first narrative portion of the movie includes some awkward patches of exposition: Biko and Woods engage in several debates about the ideas behind Black Consciousness in a clear attempt to explain them to the viewer, but Biko’s arguments aren’t easily packaged into a few sentences. At the heart of his beliefs was the idea that decades, centuries really, of racial inequality and state-sponsored prejudice had begun to sink in: that black people were growing up believing, on some level, that they must really be inferior. Biko believed that this inferiority complex was a greater problem than anything the Afrikaner government might inflict on them, and set out to combat it with writings, speeches, and community projects—the example given in the movie is a medical clinic staffed entirely with black administrators, nurses, and doctors. What some saw as reverse racism was really Biko’s attempt to prove that blacks could be resourceful, competent, successful and self-sufficient in any task they took on. Without this belief in themselves firmly ingrained, Biko thought, any freedoms they achieved would be viewed as gifts from benevolent whites, and as such would be no freedoms at all.
Steve Biko is played by Denzel Washington, who manages – in spite of an accent that is possibly even worse than Kline’s – to powerfully convey the charisma, quick wit, and essential goodness that Woods was so surprised to find in someone he had assumed was an embittered, racist zealot. The admiration, mutual respect, and genuine enjoyment between the two men comes through strongly, and a courtroom scene where Biko ties the white lawyers and judges in rhetorical knots is a clear highlight.
After Biko’s funeral – another powerful scene – the movie lags a little. The efforts of Woods and his colleagues to prove that their friend was murdered, and to smuggle the evidence out of the country, feel like an anti-climax; we know very well that no one will be held to account for the death. And after the sufferings of Biko and his friends, the harassment of the Woods family can feel a little underwhelming. Woods has been criticized for inserting too much of his own story into Biko’s, and there is certainly a lot of Woods’ story in the movie. But director Richard Attenborough is not claiming to tell apartheid’s only story or its most important story—it is simply one story among many. Woods certainly risked his life and the safety of his family to get his book published—his story, even if less dramatic than Steve Biko’s, has a right to be told.
In the final minutes of the movie, Attenborough shifts between the Woods family’s escape effort and the large-scale riots in Soweto that began in the months before Biko’s death. Biko and Black Consciousness have been credited with inspiring the students behind the Soweto Uprising, and Soweto, in turn, is viewed as the turning point in the fight against apartheid. It’s a bittersweet ending to a movie that is by turns uplifting and depressing: as Woods flies over the South African landscape, and as African children are shot to death by police in the townships, Biko speaks, for one last time, from Woods’ memory: “Change the way people think, and things will never be the same.”
Stephen Bantu Biko, 18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977