Film Reviews

In black and white

Alan Paton's classic 1948 novel Cry, The Beloved Country managed to be both political and literary in a century of world literature that often tried to achieve greatness through its politics alone. The French had their existentialists, the Germans their realists, but South Africa had scarcely registered as more than a post-World War II paradise-in-the-raw to be plundered when Paton's book was published. Most of the world had never heard about a political system called apartheid, and Alan Paton was their first guide on a tour of shantytown poverty, urban corruption, and simmering African anger.

Indeed, if the book has served as both revelation and catalyst, it was more for forces that resided outside South Africa than for the uprising within it. South African natives were emerging from the mines and factories to discover how Anglo settlers were crowding them out of their own most productive lands and forcing the land's indigenous residents to both earn and pay outrageous living wages to an educated, wealthy, mostly foreign elite.

Paton was no demagogue, however. In the end, his literary subtlety is inextricable from his carefully balanced political sensibilities. He understood that the bitterness of an oppressed people, however justified, will inevitably turn inward and destroy the very activists who have been using it as inspiration. The human face he chose to put on apartheid was one sticky moral dilemma--the murder of a prominent white anti-apartheid activist by a group of black youths, not during some demonstration, but in the midst of a petty robbery. Was the spleen behind their crime a product of the degrading system the murder victim had struggled to overthrow?

While he never once flinched from recording apartheid at its most humiliating, Paton also didn't attempt to guide the sympathies of his audience, and neither do screenwriter Ronald Harwood and director Darrell James Roodt in their new film version. (It was previously overseen by British film makers in 1951 as one of Sidney Poitier's first star vehicles.)

Producer Anant Singh first acquired the rights to Paton's book five years ago, as South Africa trembled on the edge of either evolution or flat-out revolution. Singh, Harwood, and Roodt waited until Nelson Mandela officially announced the death of apartheid to begin pre-production inside the mother country.

A two-hour film couldn't possibly do full justice to the panorama of characters and landscape descriptions in Alan Paton's book. Even so, Roodt's Cry, The Beloved Country is a superbly acted, respectfully scripted snoozer of a human drama, a movie whose admirable moral complexities decompose into a benevolent sludge that threatens to smother the viewer. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood focuses not on the young man convicted of the crime (Eric Miyeni), but on two neighbors--the killer's father (James Earl Jones) and the victim's father (Richard Harris)--who are pulled into it.

Rather than try to understand the son's motives or dramatize the political conversion of the victim, the film chooses a more philosophical, distanced route, essaying a strained comparison/contrast of Jones and Harris. We experience a story that coats our nostrils and throats with dust each time we attempt to inhale some profound truth.

Roodt and Harwood have both said they intended this version of Cry, The Beloved Country to be a monument to the atrocities of apartheid. Appropriately, the film proceeds with as much vigor as a municipal park sculpture, although a handful of grave, articulate performances manage to kindle enough spark to keep viewers awake during the most important moments.

Zulu Christian preacher Kumalo (Jones) lives with his wife in a beautiful South African valley, just a few miles from the sumptuous farm of Jarvis (Harris), an Afrikaner who can't understand why blacks and whites would ever want to mix. The film opens with a brittle, moving scene--a little girl delivering a letter on foot to Kumalo, who encounters Jarvis on horseback and cowers before him though he offers her a benevolent smile.

The letter is from a family friend of Kumalo's who's concerned about how his sister and son may be faring in the overcrowded, crime-ridden, politically volatile city of Johannesburg. Kumalo, an old man who has lived his life in service to the church and been wholly removed from anti-apartheid activism, reluctantly journeys to Johannesburg to find his errant family members. Poor, proud Kumalo must retain his dignity as both sister and son disgrace him in profound, public ways.

James Earl Jones and Richard Harris are the only reasons to see Cry, The Beloved Country. Both are stage-trained actors as well as legends, which might make you approach the movie with caution; neither allows himself to loom larger than the material (in retrospect, a little showboating could've only helped). Jones is the moral center here, the one we're directed to study the hardest--a gravel-voiced, sad-eyed giant who seems to hold the majesty of Christ and wounded African manhood in one vessel. The kind-hearted racist delivered by Harris topples from his ivory throne without too much affected bluster.

Cry, The Beloved Country is a miniature version of a political epic, a film that glosses over several vital players in a taut story whose every detail is indispensable. Perhaps there are already too many American films on the market that depict angry young black men and their behavior, but this international "monument" to apartheid cries out for an earthy dose of anger.

Cry, The Beloved Country. Miramax. James Earl Jones, Richard Harris, Eric Miyeni. Written by Ronald Harwood, from the novel by Alan Paton. Directed by Darrell James Roodt. Inwood.

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Jimmy Fowler