"CRY FREEDOM" is a pill movie. You take it with a glass of water and you feel better about your social consciousness in the morning. Sir Richard Attenborough, who made the there'll-be-a-midterm-later "Gandhi," does the same again with the story of black South African activist Steven Biko.
"Gandhi" screenwriter John Briley based "Cry" on Donald Woods' books, "Biko" and "Asking for Trouble." Liberal white South African journalist Woods befriended Biko a few years before the Black Consciousness Movement leader was killed in police custody -- 10 years ago last September. In the film as in fact, Woods (Kevin Kline) is initially opposed to Biko for what Woods sees as reverse racism. But after meeting Biko (Denzel Washington), he undergoes a radical change and makes Biko's apartheid battles his own.
Attenborough, a filmmaker of unfiltered good will, makes no secret of his propaganda. "Cry," a story of bad (Afrikaner) whites, decent (liberal, mostly British) whites and subjugated blacks, calls for reform -- perhaps most effectively in its concluding roll call of official death reports (slipped in shower, hanged himself, etc.) that bleed right into 1987. And the villains portrayed here are historically accurate; Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger, for instance, did tell a supportive white audience, "Biko's death leaves me cold."
"Cry" opens powerfully. A quiet morning in Crossroads, an illegal shanty town, is shattered by invading armored cars (known as "hippos"), police and foaming dogs. Men, women and children flee before an ever-familiar apocalypse. A government radio report says later that blacks surrendered to police willingly.
From here on, the movie centers on Woods -- at once its major flaw. As scripted, and despite Kline's efforts, Woods pales -- so to speak -- against Denzel ("A Soldier's Story") Washington's Biko. When Biko dies halfway through, so does the movie. The Woods family's subsequent flight from South Africa becomes the cinematic equivalent of a Gerald Ford presidency.
Attenborough tries to rally with Biko flashbacks and a depiction of the Soweto massacre. But the 1976 slaughter of black schoolchildren (which happened a year before Biko's death and would have been excellent material for Kline and Washington to experience together) is chronologically and dramatically out of place. And the flashbacks only remind you of whom you'd rather be watching.
In a country busier than Chile with oppression, violence and subjugation, the story of Woods' slow awakening is certainly not the most exciting, or revealing. But Attenborough's aims are more academic and political than dramatic. By following an initially wrongheaded white character, he clearly wants to reach out to similar audiences. "Cry" could have reached further.
CRY FREEDOM (PG) -- At the Uptown.