Haven't I seen this movie before?" many viewers will ask after watching A Dry White Season, Hollywood's latest attempt to serve up the South African situation for an American audience.
Like Cry Freedom and A World Apart before it, A Dry White Season (directed by Euzhan Palcy) pictures poor and oppressed blacks suffering because of rich but ignorant whites who would rather not know what their decorously titled Security Branch does to maintain the status quo.
The protagonist in such films, inevitably a white South African, can come from a variety of backgrounds. Indeed, one truth these films record is the pervasive ignorance among whites about black life in South Africa. This ignorance is shared by the liberal English newspaper editor Donald Woods before he meets Steven Biko in Cry Freedom and the Afrikaner teacher Ben du Tuit before he probes the circumstances surrounding the police-custody death of his gardener, Jonathan, in A Dry White Season.
Regular as clockwork, the Security Branch frustrates such attempts to seek justice by arresting or detaining the protagonists, placing them under house arrest, driving them into exile, or assassinating them, as in the case of Ruth First, the woman after whom Diana Roth is modeled in A World Apart. In short, it seems that nothing ever will change under the current regime.
If I had one criticism of the way these films depict South African reality, it would be that they are stuck in history. A World Apart starts with the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, when police shot 69 blacks who were protesting the pass laws that impeded their freedom of movement, and the dramatic repression that followed. The police finally got what they were looking for with the 1964 Rivonia raid featured in the film. The sweep captured key members of the ANC, including Nelson Mandela and the recently freed Walter Sisulu. Both Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo, head of the Communist Party and First's husband, fled into exile, where they still remain.
A Dry White Season and Cry Freedom take their cue from the Soweto uprising on June 16, 1976, when African school children protested segregated government-run schooling that forced Afrikaans-language instruction on them.
I'm not saying that these episodes are unworthy of the silver screen—or that historical events can't be spiced up with a bit of emotion. It's just that in each of these movies, the events are represented not as history but as South Africa today. In fact, before the credits roll in each film, somber written commentary flashes on the screen in a belated attempt to link the fictionalized account we have just seen with the current actions of the South African government. Instead of Do the Right Thing, tense contemporary drama in which people are human even if still bound to racial identities, we have Mississippi Burning, in which saintly (and largely offscreen) blacks can do no wrong while heroic whites fight for black rights.
But if the state of Mississippi openly welcomed the production and showing of Mississippi Burning (which, incidentally, was a big hit in South Africa) as a chance to reexamine civil rights and its past, the Afrikaners in power have not exactly rolled out the red carpet for films focusing on South Africa's struggle for civil rights. All three movies had to be made in Zimbabwe, and all are banned in South Africa. In an autocratic move by then-President P.W. Botha, Cry Freedom was pulled from the cinemas at the last minute, after the film had passed muster with the censorship boards.
Given actions like these, perhaps the outside world can be forgiven for thinking that South Africa is an unmitigated police state operating under a continuous El Salvador–like state of siege. So it may be surprising that much of what appears to be normal life goes on—including political protest and anti-apartheid activism—until something in the state snaps, reminding you that even if South Africa isn't El Salvador, neither is it simply the pre-civil rights American South.
For example, I saw A World Apart at a fancy cinema in Johannesburg's northern suburbs in April. The film, which tells the touching story of Communist Party member Ruth First and her teenage daughter, Shawn Slovo, is banned. But the government allows some banned movies to be shown at small screenings for "select" (well-educated and usually white) audiences. A World Apart, the best of the three American films, is actually the least subversive, chronicling the role of political commitment in the breakup of a family and depicting an adolescent's attempt to come to terms with her parents' political choices.
I went to the film with a fellow American. We decided to see it after attending a small forum at which a lawyer, a doctor, and a parent of someone in detention discussed the condition of the hundreds of people then "inside," who had undertaken a hunger strike to free themselves when all other legal attempts had failed.
"That was pretty spooky," my companion said, having watched Roth's back-to-back 90-day periods of detention (in the quaint days when imprisonment without trial was at least partially restricted) on celluloid after hearing real-life people discuss what it was like.
But neither my friend nor I could anticipate the far more shocking parallel that was to come: Within three weeks of chairing that small forum, after working tirelessly behind the scenes to offer support for detainees and activists living under restriction orders, Witwatersrand University Professor David Webster was assassinated on a street outside his Johannesburg home. His funeral procession, which the Botha regime permitted in a final act of contrition, was a blazing protest march of black and white through the streets of Johannesburg, including an emotional rendition of "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("God Bless Africa")—more peaceful, and more powerful, than even the exquisite renditions in Cry Freedom.
Sometimes it's difficult to appreciate just how much interaction there is across South Africa's color line. Some of the best moments in each of the films come from interracial friendship. In A World Apart, Molly Roth turns to an ANC activist after all her friends have branded her a traitor. In A Dry White Season, Ben's son plays soccer with Jonathan's son before the latter is captured and killed in the post-1976 crackdown.
But the films pay far too little attention to such contact, and when it is depicted, it is always on the white character's terms. Moreover, although the story lines of the films deflate the myth of all whites as oppressors, they don't do enough to challenge the view that all blacks are victims.
For this reason I particularly enjoyed Jobman, a new South African film I saw in the black township of Alexandra at one of the screenings in this year's Weekly Mail film festival. The movie is based on a story by Achmat Dangor. Jobman is a "colored" man born without a tongue on a ranch in the vast semiarid Karroo of the northern Cape. After years of maltreatment in the nearby diamond town of Kimberly, including an incident in which he is bloodied by a gang of Afrikaner youths in front of a 1960 election poster ("Vote Nationalist for a White South Africa"), Jobman returns to the ranch for the last time, taking his wife and child with him.
All the white local farmers—all, that is, except the owner of the ranch, who was Jobman's childhood friend—form a posse out to get the "Hotnot's" blood. At the Christmas barbecue, news comes that Jobman has shot the first three of the search party. But Jobman's farmer friend refuses to cooperate with the sheriff, saying that "Jobman has harmed neither me nor my property." The farmer leaves the members of the posse to be picked off by Jobman's bullets, until he is finally left with no choice but to confront Jobman himself.
Without ever referring explicitly to apartheid, the brilliantly filmed and acted Jobman comes closer to recording the passions, prejudices, and resistance under the South African regime than Cry Freedom, A Dry White Season, and A World Apart combined.
Andrew Clark recently returned from a year in South Africa, where he was a reporter for the Weekly Mail and a researcher for the South African Institute of Race Relations.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies: Cry, It's a Dry White World".