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CRITIC AT LARGE

Attenborough's 'Freedom' Is Struggling for the Right Reasons

November 14, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

It's sad but only slightly surprising that Richard Attenborough's "Cry Freedom" is struggling to find audiences. It is serious, worthy, instructive, relevant, urgent and compassionate. The trouble is that not one of those is a bankable word.

Steamy is a bankable word; erotic has marquee value; shocking will draw a certain crowd; rollicking and hilarious will at a minimum bring the ad-scanner to a thoughtful pause. A real nail-biter will pack the house.

The slight surprise is that "Cry Freedom" is by no means totally bankrupt in the matter of bankable words. It is to a high degree suspenseful, for example.

The attempts by the white South African journalist Donald Woods to slip out from under suffocating house arrest and flee the country with his wife and children is a plot-line that has been used in a hundred melodramas, up to and including "The Sound of Music," and this one stays even closer to the non-musical truth.

"Cry Freedom" is violent, although it is the violence of truth--a re-enactment of the gunning down of hundreds of protesting students--rather than a concocted and exploitative fantasy. It is exotic, in the sense of taking the viewer inside a profoundly troubled society whose rumbling mixture of paranoia and frustration is as primed for disaster as the reactor in "China Syndrome."

The movie is both intimate and epic, on the scale of its look at South Africa's extremes of richness and poverty, the establishment's gleaming towers, the shanty-town squalor of its black settlements.

The question, which I expect potential customers have been asking themselves, is whether "Cry Freedom" is a downer. Downer is the most anti-bankable word in the film vocabulary.

The answer is that the battle has a strong and uplifting ending; the war, tragically, is another matter.

The murder in prison of the black South African activist Steve Biko has been pried free from the official cover-up, thanks to Woods, and made a matter of international notoriety and rebuke.

In a way, it's hard not to be reminded of the anti-Fascist dramas of wartime. The immediate victories are won: the key bridge is blown, the underground leader makes his way to freedom (leaving Bogart behind to remember Ilsa and fight for the Free French, let us say). But the larger conflict in those wartime dramas went forward, just off camera, though with a renewed sense that freedom and justice would prevail in the long run.

The Attenborough film, with a script by John Briley based on two of Woods' books, allows nothing like easy optimism. It is unquestionably a pessimistic and even apocalyptic vision of South Africa's future. The inclusion of the slaughter of the children toward the end of the film, outside the narrative chronology of the Woods's own flight, was, it seems clear, to underscore the distinction between one small triumph and the looming catastrophe.

Attenborough was initially criticized for focusing on the family's flight, with Biko gone after perhaps a third of the film. But Biko (superbly portrayed by Denzel Washington) is a hovering, accusing, motivating presence from first to last.

And perhaps the most sobering demonstration in the film is not of the oppression of blacks nor of the rigidity of the official position (both revealed in almost every news dispatch from South Africa). It is of the changes in Woods himself (portrayed with considerable resemblance to the man himself by Kevin Kline).

The comfortable establishment figure is forced to confront the realities of black life and made to see the impossibility of accommodation or of gradualism as an antidote to apartheid. Not least he is forced to deal with his actual impotence as against his purported power as an editor. The silencing of all voices of reconciliation and peaceful change is the final horror of "Cry Freedom."

What Attenborough and Briley obviously sought to do is engross the audience, creating a highly dramatic film with a strong, suspenseful conventional narrative drive. The plot devices, born in reality, include a disguise that may be penetrated at any moment.

The messages and the revelations are there, plain to see and hear. But in center screen are the double personal dramas of Steve Biko and Donald Woods. There occasionally seems to be a shortage of film characters to root for. Not in "Cry Freedom."

For all its dramatic values and its accumulation of critical praise, "Cry Freedom" is evidently not prospering at the box office. Like "The Right Stuff," another surprising commercial disappointment, "Cry Freedom" may seem to promise an experience rather different and less satisfying than the one it actually presents.

"Cry Freedom" can be seen, not because it is good for you, like a distasteful tonic rich in cod liver oil, but because it is a passionate piece of film making, bold, exciting and enlarging.

It may be that the title sounds too earnest; the matter of titles is an inexact science.

In the end, the film audience gets what it wants. Unfortunately, when ambitious and aggressive films lack for business, the audience may end up getting what it deserves.

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