Rated PG. Running time: 2 hour 37 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 6; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
“O come. O Come, Emmanuel/And ransom captive Israel…”
Although the evil structure of Apartheid is being dismantled in South Africa, such films as Richard Attenborough’s are still needed to remind us of the cost of the struggle for freedom and that even during that country’s darkest hour there shone forth a friendship between a white and a black man. Donald Woods and Steve Biko are real persons, who, each in his own way, gave up so much for their convictions. The ugly face of apartheid is exposed, not only in the expected scenes of police brutality, but also in the hypocrisy and smug indifference of those in power.
When we first see Donald Woods he is a comfortable South African liberal opposed to apartheid but very suspicious of black leaders, such as Steve Biko, who teach “Black Consciousness.” It is only when he is introduced to Biko that he begins to understand the need for this emphasis, and his admiration and friendship for the black leader begins. This friendship leads him on a journey with dire consequences for himself and his family. After the death of their friend the Woods must decide whether or not to continue their fight in the face of such overwhelming odds.
The film was criticized in some quarters as reflecting the racism of our society and the film industry, in that the story of Steve Biko had to be linked to that of a white person in order to be told. Since this is also the case of two other films about South Africa (See A Dry White Season and A Separate Peace. Only in the vintage film Cry, the Beloved Country do Africans hold center stage.), this charge must be explored by viewers of Attenborough’s work. Despite this, it should be recognized that the director of Gandhi serves both the two great men and their cause well in this film–as do Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline as, respectively, Steve Biko and Donald Woods!
For thought and discussion
1. What is going on in the opening scenes? Why are the people of the shanty township being attacked? What will happen to most of the people rounded up? (Someone who knows details of the background of South Africa’s pass and residency requirements might share briefly here.)
2. Describe Donald and Wendy Woods’ situation when we first meet them. As liberal whites in a racist society what sacrifices have they probably been called upon to make? Do they really know much about the situation of the blacks? How is this similar to many in our own country?
3. The Black Consciousness Movement excluded whites. Why do you think this was done? What is the danger of whites being involved in a struggle of an oppressed people of another race? Was this a problem in the American Civil Rights Movement? How could this exclusion become, as Woods thought, reverse discrimination or racism?
4. Although a minor character in the screenplay, Dr. Mamphela Ramphele is important in Donald and Steve’s destiny. How is she different from most of the blacks with whom Donald has dealt in the past?
5. What do you learn about Steve Biko in the first meeting with Woods? Aside from helping the poor residents, what function does the clinic and community center provide? How is this an expression of Black Consciousness? Steve is a banned person; what does this mean?
6. How does Steve lead Donald into a journey of understanding? What journeys of understanding do affluent Americans need to undertake?
7. Unable to entrap Steve in an open trial, the authorities resort to other measures. How does this inform the people’s view of government and police authority? Any signs of this in our own country? In the Broadway musical adaptation of the novel Cry, the Beloved Country Lost in the Stars a black and a white group sum up the results of such abuses of power:
It is fear! It is fear! It is fear! It is fear!
Who can enjoy the lovely land/The seventy years,/The sun that pours down on the earth,/When there is fear in the heart?
Who can walk quietly in the dusk/When behind the dusk there are whispers/And reckless hands?/Yes, we (whites) fear them./For they are many and we are few!
Who can be content/When he dares not raise his voice?/It is fear!/For fear of the whip, the guard, the loss of his house?/It is fear!
For fear of the mines,/And the prison,/And the cell from which there is no return?/
Yes, we fear them/Though we are many and they are few…It is fear! It is fear! It
(pp.331-333, FAMOUS AMERICAN PLAYS of the 1940s, Dell Paperback, 1966.)
Is it any wonder that some in South Africa have resorted to violence to dismantle apartheid?
8. The full evil force of apartheid is met in Steve Biko’s death. Describe the various reactions to this. What does the speech and singing at his funeral give to the mourners?
9. What do you think of Donald’s decision after he is banned? Do you sympathize with Wendy? Can there be a moral decision that affects only oneself? How does this complicate deciding what to do?
10. Like all journeys to freedom, Donald Woods’ involved the participation of many people. Describe the various people who helped in his escape. What does say about our own struggles (such as the Sanctuary Movement) and the need for a “conspiracy of love”? And what does the list of martyrs that is scrolled across the screen at the end say about the cost of such struggles?
11. What do you think about the charges that even this film is an example of white racism? Is it necessary to involve the story of a white person for a film about apartheid to be made or distributed? (Just as the makers of Mississippi Burning felt they had to falsify history and make the white FBI the good guys in this supposedly true story of the 1964 murder of three Civil Rights workers!) Is this charge fair to Richard Attenborough? Is the friendship between two men of different races itself worth depicting, so that the critics are blaming the director for not filming something which he hadn’t intended in the first place?