By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: He fights social injustice.
The story centers on South African schoolteacher Ben (Donald Sutherland) who has led a peaceful law abiding suburban existence and has no idea about the social injustices around him. One day his black gardener (Winston Ntshona) comes to him complaining about how his son was beaten by police simply for attending a peaceful rally. Ben initially dismisses the claims and insists the son must’ve done something wrong, but when he investigates the issue further he finds some startling revelations about how far the authorities are willing to go to stop dissent and when Ben decides to challenge the police on this his life and security get put on the line.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Andre Brink and directed by Euzhan Palcy who became the first Black woman to direct a film that was produced by a major Hollywood studio. For the most part the film is polished and well made and at the beginning emotionally effective as we see first hand the brutal treatment of the protesters by the police. I also liked how it shows both sides of the issue by having Ben’s wife Susan (Janet Suzman) admit that apartheid is wrong, but too afraid for its abolishment as she fears it might put the whites at too much of a disadvantage.
Unfortunately somewhere along the way it starts to lose steam and ends on a whimper that is nowhere near the emotional level that it began with. Part of the problem is that it suffers from a weak main character. Sutherland plays the part well, but it’s hard to understand how someone could live well into his middle age years and still have such extreme naivety to what was going on in the country that he resided in. He’s also dependent on those around him to do most of the legwork and you have to question what difference does our hero’s actions ultimately make anyways since apartheid continued on for many years after this film’s setting, which is 1976.
All of this could’ve been resolved had Marlon Brando’s character been made the protagonist. Brando came out of retirement to take on the supporting role and agreed to do it at union scale, which was far below his usual salary demands. His presence adds zest to the proceedings as a lawyer who is quite attuned to the corrupt system, but decides to give it a fiery court battle anyways and it’s a shame that he’s only in it for a brief period and then just completely disappears during the second half.
The ending differs a bit from the book and was added in by director Palcy, which has a black cab driver Zakes Mokae taking the law into his own hands and shooting the Jurgen Prochnow character, who plays a policemen, after he intentionally ran Sutherland over with his car. Palcy did this to show how even decent people can be pushed to violence, which I agree with, but she seems to feel the need to justify this by having a flashback ‘replay’ of all the previous events that drove Mokae to pull the trigger, which comes off as heavy-handed. If we’ve watched the movie then we already know what happened and don’t suddenly need a ‘refresher course’.
End of Spoiler Alert!
As a drama it’s an adequately compelling, but there’s other movies on the same subject and I can’t say this one stands out from those. I was also disappointed to find that the book from which this is based was fictional as I initially thought it was a true story since it takes place in a very specific year. I’m not saying some of what goes on here didn’t happen in a broad sense, but having it centered on verifiable events gives it more relevance and makes it seem more like telling a story as opposed to just making a political statement.
My Rating: 6 out of 10
Released: September 20, 1989
Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes
Director: Euzhan Palcy
Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Criterion Collection), Amazon Video, YouTube