JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Prints of the anti-apartheid film "Cry Freedom," seized by police from 30 South African theaters on its opening day in July, 1988, have been returned and the distributing company said Monday it will re-release the film April 27, nearly two years after its originally scheduled premiere.
United International Pictures, the film's distributor here, said in a statement that it saw no remaining obstacles to the nationwide release of "Cry Freedom."
"Cry Freedom," a Universal Pictures production directed by Richard Attenborough and shot on location in Zimbabwe, had as many as three screenings in some theaters before it was banned on July 29, 1988, and armed policemen forcibly removed the large reels containing the film from projection rooms across the country.
The quiet decision by police to return the film to the distributor reflects the more liberal era introduced in the country in recent weeks by President Frederik W. de Klerk. Since Feb. 2, De Klerk has freed nationalist leader Nelson R. Mandela and instituted sweeping reform measures designed to free up black political activity and ease the police clampdown on civil rights.
Among his actions, De Klerk erased 374 names from the list of people who may not be quoted or published inside South Africa. One of those was Donald Woods, the self-exiled author of the book "Cry Freedom" who now lives in London. De Klerk's action removed the police rationale for withdrawing the film.
The film, which was largely autobiographical, portrayed the friendship between Woods, a liberal white editor of a newspaper in the coastal city of East London, and Steve Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness movement, who died in police custody 12 years ago.
Woods, portrayed by actor Kevin Kline in the film, supported cautious reforms, as many liberal whites here do, before he met Biko. The black leader transformed Woods into a strong supporter of more radical changes in the country. The editor, under constant harassment by police, escaped South Africa with his family more than a decade ago.
Biko, portrayed by actor Denzel Washington, advocated black self-sufficiency, identity and pride. He used to say: "Black man, you are on your own." As founder of the Black Consciousness movement, he believed that while whites can help remove apartheid, blacks should hold all the leadership positions.
The film had been approved two years ago by government censors, who said it posed no threat to the security of the state.
"Even if the film was intended to evoke a revolutionary response among viewers, it fails dismally," Kobus van Rooyen, chairman of the publications appeals board, had said in approving the film.
But four hours later, the government overruled its censors on the day the film opened, saying the police were in a better position to judge "what the implications of the film would be on the street." It said that, among other things, "Cry Freedom" violated the law against quoting a "listed person," such as Woods. The police commissioner then dispatched officers to seize the film prints.
More than 1,000 people saw the film before it was seized, some in packed theaters. Many more had bought tickets for later shows, and theaters in black townships and white suburbs alike reported their evening shows were sold out.