JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — "Cry Freedom," Sir Richard Attenborough's movie about South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, will be reviewed by government censors in Cape Town today as producers try to clear the film for screening here.
Universal Pictures, which produced the film, challenged South African authorities earlier this week to permit "Cry Freedom" to be shown uncut to integrated audiences throughout the country.
Tom Pollock, chairman of MCA Motion Picture Group, the parent company of Universal, said in Los Angeles that he believed the film would be "enormously successful" in South Africa and could have a wide political effect as well by helping change white attitudes.
In focusing on the relationship between Biko, who died in police custody 10 years ago, and Donald Woods, the liberal white newspaper editor who took up his cause, "Cry Freedom" addresses one of South Africa's most sensitive questions today--the role of whites in the effort to end apartheid.
But a spokesman for the government's publications directorate, whose review committees must clear all films screened in the country, said in Cape Town that South African law authorizes the censoring or outright banning of movies that the committees think might endanger state security or public order.
The law also permits, he said, the censoring or banning of films that the committee believes ridicule some sections of the community or that might harm race relations.
"While they operate under very clear guidelines . . . the committees have tremendous scope and latitude in exercising their discretion and judgment under the law," he said. "I won't predict what the decision will be in the case of a film like 'Cry Freedom.' "
A decision is likely in a week, officials said, and an adverse ruling may be contested before the government's publications appeal board, which often is more liberal in its interpretation of the law than the initial review committees.
In London, Attenborough declared, "I'll not cut a single foot," repeating his conditions that the film must be shown intact and only to integrated audiences.
But Attenborough also expressed strong doubts that the South African authorities would permit to be seen here a number of scenes from the movie, such as the portrayals of Biko's death as a result of police beatings and of the harsh police measures to quell rioting in the black ghetto of Soweto.
A further legal problem could be Woods' authorship of the books on which the movie is based as well as his role in making the film. As a "banned" person, barred from political activities under South Africa's security laws, Woods may not be quoted in South Africa. He lives in exile in Britain.
While political censorship has been eased substantially in recent years, South African authorities have permitted the screening of such films as "Witness to Apartheid," an Oscar nominee this year, but with restrictions on where it might be shown. The authorities also continue to ban outright other productions deemed controversial.
"What we figure is that if we just submit the film to the government without throwing a spotlight on it," Pollock said, "it will be banned as a matter of course. The only chance we have is to focus the spotlight on it. This will make their choice difficult.
"They would rather have it submitted quietly, banned quietly and no further noise. By doing this, we have increased the likelihood that it will be shown in South Africa."
A previous Attenborough film, "Gandhi," was shown uncut in South Africa although some of the early action took place here and dramatically portrayed the discrimination against nonwhites.
Pollock said that Universal, if permitted to distribute "Cry Freedom" here, would donate its profits to the United Nations International Childrens Fund to help the children of southern Africa. The profits from showing "Gandhi" here amounted to more than $1 million here and were given to UNICEF.
Jack Mathews contributed to this article.