Sir Richard Attenborough is a chivalric filmmaker with a passion for great men, and "Cry Freedom," the storyof South African activist Stephen Biko, is a heraldic pageant about such a hero. There's an elegiac quality to this epic biography, which depicts Biko, martyred in 1977 while in the custody of the South African security police, as a monument to the justness of his cause. Like "Gandhi," it's less a portrait of the real person than the canonization of a modern saint.
This version of the story serves as not only a stirring salute to Biko's sacrifice, but also a scathing condemnation of apartheid. Though Attenborough is heavy handed in his treatment of the ruling whites, his seems a just and mighty anger. These racists hide behind black hoods instead of white sheets, relishing a climate of supremacy that inevitably breeds brutality. Clearly, the Afrikaners are Attenborough's Nazis.
"Cry Freedom" is based on "Biko" and "Asking for Trouble," books by Donald Woods. The movie shapes itself around the friendship between Woods, a smug white liberal journalist, and Biko, the gentle intellectual who expands Woods' cozy horizons. At first, Woods attacks Biko as a black supremacist, but he revises his opinion when he meets with the activist. The first half of the movie traces the friendship, concentrating on Biko's career, but the second concerns Woods' escape from South Africa with Biko's contraband biography.
Attenborough has been criticized for the second half, an action thriller that tags a white hero onto what some felt was a black hero's story. But that's a little like whipping Paul Simon for introducing Ladysmith BlackMambazo to American audiences. In both cases, the ends justify the means. And here that end is to expose the spiritual and physical genocide of apartheid. South Africa hides behind a press blackout; "Cry Freedom" exposes it in the bright and persuasive light of Biko's consciousness.
American Denzel Washington, a regular on "St. Elsewhere" and costar of "A Soldier's Story," plays Biko. He gives a zealous, Oscar-caliber performance as this African messiah, who was recognized as one of South Africa's major political voices when he was only 25. Biko was unflappable, logical and witty in life, and Washington conveys that solidity onscreen.
"Why call yourselves black?" asks an Afrikaner judge. "You people are more brown than black."
"Why do you call yourselves white? You people are more pink than white," Biko replies.
Ashistory shows, laughing at the bully boys is a good way to get yourself crucified. Nothing makes cowards madder, and Biko relished taunting them. Eventually he was made a banned person, forbidden to travel outside his home district, to write, even in his own journal, or to be quoted by name in the media. But he wrote on, hiding the pages in his baby's diapers, and spoke to an audience ostensibly assembled for a soccer game.
In a perfect counterpoint to Washington's performance, the chameleon Kevin Kline takes on the part of Woods. With a softly clipped accent, he seems as accustomed to the character as a Londoner to his umbrella. Unlike Biko, Woods evolves over the course of the film. Through his association with Biko and his increasing activism, Woods also becomes a banned person, an example to other whites who would side with the black cause.
"CryFreedom" also shows us a South African SS, secretive and sadistic in its effort to keep Woods in line. Woods even suspects the agency of sending his children T-shirts soaked in an acid that burns their eyes and skin. Frightened of the government and determined to get Biko's story published, the Woodses flee the country. And while we miss Biko's spirit, we're involved in Woods' adventure.
The proficiency of the actors powers the movie despite a stiff script and Attenborough's preference for choreographed crowd scenes over intimacy. He's a Cecil B. De Mille disciple and doesn't know it. The movie's most moving moments come from a heavenly perspective, as we overlook the sea of mourners at Biko's funeral.
That stateliness serves Biko's story well. But it doesn't spark the suspense thriller that is Woods' escape from South Africa. "Cry Freedom" does get us all choked up with its good intentions and the vast visions of both its heroes.In the best of all possible worlds, Attenborough would have focused on Biko as he did on Gandhi. We can be picky, even petty, or we can congratulate him for telling the story. "Cry Freedom's" strength, oddly, is its own fusty noblesse oblige.
Cry Freedom, at the Uptown, is rated PG and contains violence.