Richard Attenborough Tribute: Cry Freedom

Jarrod Emerson’s Tribute to Richard Attenborough

Part 7: CRY FREEDOM (1987)

Cry Freedom tells the powerful true story of black South African activist Stephen Biko (Denzel Washington). The founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, Biko was a fierce advocate for equal rights for the largely impoverished native South African population during the height of Apartheid. Biko died in 1977 while in police custody. Donald Woods (Kevin Kline), a white liberal journalist and a friend of Biko’s, was instrumental in exposing the truth about Biko’s death. The “official story” stated that Biko had died of a hunger strike; in reality Biko died of a head injury at the hands of police. Donald Woods further exposed the numerous injustices conducted by the South African government. Based on Woods’s collected writings, the film chronicles Woods’s and Biko’s friendship, Biko’s death, and Woods’s subsequent plan to flee South Africa after the government begins to target him as well.

Richard Attenborough once again touches on another powerful chapter in world history. When we first meet Donald Woods, comfortably seated behind his editor’s desk at the Daily Dispatch newspaper, he is already a vocal critic of Apartheid. However, it is not until he meets Biko face to face that he begins to fully comprehend the severe cruelty of Apartheid. Whether he realizes it or not, Woods’s life will be forever changed, as he will become entrenched in Biko’s struggles against the segregationist policies of the South African government.  

Both leading actors have a very good, believable chemistry, disappearing seamlessly into their roles. Donald Woods (played by Kline) is a man who goes from being merely a sympathizer to a full-fledged activist. After Biko’s tragic death, Woods is emboldened to ensure Biko’s voice is heard worldwide. This comes at a cost, however, as Woods is placed under house arrest by the South African government and his family is repeatedly threatened. For his Academy Award nominated turn as Biko, Denzel Washington does a wonderful job bringing a brave historical figure to life. Despite a fierce commitment to his cause and being constantly interrogated by the authorities, Biko always remains calm. He is a thinker, first and foremost. When detained and put on trial, he uses words as his ammunition, not violence.

In Cry Freedom, Attenborough has reunited with most of his Gandhi crew. George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa collaborate to create a beautiful orchestral score, with haunting South African roots. Cinematographer Ronnie Taylor impeccably captures gorgeous African locations. Both dramatically and ascetically, Cry Freedom is an artistic triumph. I regret to say that before viewing Cry Freedom, my knowledge of Stephen Biko was minimal, and many people I have spoken to had never heard of him. While Apartheid ended over two decades ago, I urge all to never forget history; we may be doomed to repeat it. To quote Peter Gabriel’s 1980 “Biko” — an incredible anti-apartheid anthem—“You can blow out a candle, but you cannot blow out a fire.”  Thankfully, Donald Woods saw to it that Biko and his cause spread like a wildfire, and then Richard Attenborough spread the word through his art in making this powerful film.

© Jarrod Emerson (12/10/16) FF2 Media

Tags: apartheid, Biko, Cry Freedom, Richard Attenborough

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