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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know Cry Freedom depicts the atrocities committed by South African government authorities during its repressive and inhuman apartheid regime, the country's racist policy that lasted from 1948 to 1994. When the film opened in 1987, it would be another six years before the minority white supremacist government would give way to rule by the black majority, led by imprisoned leader Nelson Mandela. Government police and soldiers massacre unarmed men, women, and children in segregated, impoverished townships. Protest leaders are banned or imprisoned. Language includes "s--t," and "caffer," an ethnic slur used to denigrate blacks. Biko is beaten to death. His bloody body is shown. A man is imprisoned and later falsely reported by the police to have hanged himself. The home of an anti-apartheid editor is shot at by police. A family of black sympathizers are sent child-sized, acid-laced T-shirts by the police. A child's burned face is seen. Briefly shown: A raiding police officer tears off the shirt of a woman. A man beaten into a coma is shown lying face down on the ground, naked. Adults smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol.
What's the story?
CRY FREEDOM depicts the violent, terrible deeds of the oppressive white racist government that ran South Africa for decades. At a time when future South African president Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, 30-year-old Steven Biko (Denzel Washington) spoke out against inequality to the degree that the government "banned" him, a practice that isolated leaders pushing for equality of the races. Privileged white newspaper editor Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) misunderstands Biko's position and writes against him, until he's invited to meet Biko. Biko's intelligence and bravery opens Woods' eyes to the fair treatment Biko really advocates. From then on, Woods works to help Biko achieve his goals by smuggling out his writings and hiring two black newspaper employees. One is arrested, tortured, and hanged in his cell, a death the police claim is suicide. Biko evades his ban by traveling to speak to activist students. He's arrested and tortured, and finally beaten to death, which is also covered up by the police. Woods sneaks in to take pictures of the mauled body (bruises are shown) and forces an inquest that's rigged to ultimately find the police innocent. Woods is banned by the government and many anti-apartheid activists help him make a dangerous escape with his wife and five kids to England, where he publishes a book that describes Biko's death, and explains his ideas and the true nature of South African oppression. The film begins with a vast and brutal police raid on a sleepy township of impoverished black people in their hovels. People are beaten and shot dead by government forces. Homes and belongings are burned. The movie is book-ended by a similar police attack on peacefully protesting students who are mowed down by bullets and clubs. The film was released in 1987, seven years before apartheid ended.
Is it any good?
This film gets so much right in its re-creation of horrific racist practices by a white supremacist government. However, the choice of focusing mostly on the bravery of a white man advocating for the equality of downtrodden blacks smells a bit of the kind of paternalism that blacks were trying to shake free of. It's not that Donald Woods' acts of defiance and bravery aren't worthy of a movie. And Kevin Kline does a fine job of showing how even a man of good intentions and high principles can idiotically get things wrong and still be humble enough to correct himself and then do the right thing. But, in comparison, the risks that black South Africans like Steven Biko and so many others took in their quest for freedom were so much greater, and they seem a bit marginalized in a film with a white hero. Denzel Washington gives a nuanced performance, but his role as the smiling corrector of wrongheaded whites reduces the importance of who he was and what he did to promote his people's fight for equality. Plus he dies in the first half of Cry Freedom.
Young viewers may find it hard to watch atrocities committed by whites in the name of keeping their country "pure" and out of the hands of what they classify as "inferior" people. But they will probably appreciate when Biko counters accusations of black savagery in "tribal" wars with, "What do you call World War I and World War II?"
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how repressive governments can be overthrown, but only by brave people who are willing to risk their lives. If life seems terrible enough under a bad and unfair government, do you think people are more willing to risk their safety in the name of improving the social situation?
Apartheid was an openly racist government whose policies were based on a notion that people of one race are superior to those of another. How do you think racial prejudice compares with the prejudice of those who think one religion is superior to others, or that one gender is superior? Why do you think people feel comfortable holding such opinions?
Although Cry Freedom is a tribute to the bravery, intelligence, and idealism of Steven Biko, how does it feel to watch as most of the action revolves around the bravery of a white newspaper editor trying to sneak out of the country with his family in order to publish his book about Biko and the plight of blacks in South Africa?
- In theaters: November 6, 1987
- On DVD or streaming: February 23, 1999
- Cast: Denzel Washington, Kevin Kline, Penelope Wilton, Josette Simon
- Director: Richard Attenborough
- Studio: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
- Genre: Drama
- Character strengths: Courage
- Run time: 157 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- Last updated: August 6, 2020
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