Shooting Black and White
A Dry White Season will piss some people off.
Like Cry Freedom, it follows the struggle of a white South African man who suddenly wakes to the injustice of apartheid. Also like Cry Freedom, the movie spends a disproportionate amount of time on the problems of whites instead of Blacks.
A Dry White Season
Directed by Euzhan Palcy
At the Loews Harvard Square Theater
But whether or not you feel that's wrong you should still see the film.
Directed by Euzhan Palcy and starring Donald Sutherland, A Dry White Season begins with the suspicious deaths of a Black gardener and his son.
Bewildered by the deaths Sutherland who teaches Afrikaaner history to schoolboys, begins looking into the incidents. Soon convinced the two were murdered by the South African secret police, he seeks help from a liberal lawyer named Ian McKenzie played by Marlon Brando. (Yes Brando).
The first conversation between Sutherland and Brando marks one of the movie's high points.
After explaining his case to the portly lawyer, Sutherland tells Brando that he only wants "justice" through the "law."
But Brando, hoary, heavy and sans Stella, merely chuckles at the request.
"Justice and law," he says, "I guess they could be described as distant cousins. And here in South Africa, Well, they're just not on speaking terms at all."
Having vented his cynicism, however, Brando agrees to take the case, thus setting the stage for one of the best courtroom scenes ever.
But Brando's role is surprisingly small. For most of the movie, the action switches back and forth between the repression of Black protest in the town ships and the gradual disintegration of Sutherland's family, most of whom are exasperated by his crusade against apartheid.
"You are not one of them," his wife points out. "You have to choose your people or you have no people."
Her words are prophetic. Sutherland is indeed without a people Moreover his wife gives voice to what must be the fundamental anxiety of Afrikaaners. Of the country's Black majority, she says "They'll swallow us up."
It's hard to believe Euzhan Palcy (Sugar Cane Alley) has directed only two movies. A Dry White Season shows a mature restraint one wouldn't expect from a newcomer. Instead of dwelling on the violence in the townships she doles it out in shocking fragments.
She also refrains from the sort of moral harangue which is certainly warranted by apartheid but which might make a less effective movie. In particular, Palcy, who is Black uses moderation in contrasting the affluent white lifestyle so obviously different from the lives led by Blacks.
Technically, Palcy is most impressive during the hazy, back-lit courtroom scene midway through the film. Moving effortlessly from angle to angle she builds a brilliant encounter between Brando and Jurgen Prochnow, who plays Captain Stolz of the secret police. Palcy delivers a particularly effective shot of Brando after the judge announces his verdict. While commotion breaks out around the defeated lawyer, he sits immobile, quietly mumbling "fuck" over and over again.
Another jewel comes in the performance of Zakes Mokae, who plays Stanley Sutherland's partner in the fight to prosecute Stolz. Unfortunately, some of the film's more insipid lines are dumped on Mokae, lines such as "hope is a white word" and "the best way to remember a man is to keep fighting." But Mokae managers a convincing mix of spite and tenderness, nonetheless.
The film's score supports its weighty subject matter. Most viewers will recognize the distinctive sound of Hugh Maskela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who provide a stirring aural backdrop to the colorful panoramas of township protest.
The movie's end on the other hand is strangely unsatisfying. As shocking as it is, the final turn of events seems too tidy a conclusion for such a complicated situation.
But a weak ending should not deter moviegoers. Most of the movie is excellent. So what if the film covers some of the same issues already treated in Cry Freedom?
Palcy's vision of South Africa sheds light on a subject that can definitely use it.