Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film Cry Freedom told the tale of the white South African journalist Donald Woods. Against all odds, Woods reported on the struggles, and subsequent death, of black civil rights activist Steve Biko. It’s a compelling picture, typical of that type of late-‘80s ‘message’ film and remains just as powerful today.
Kevin Kline plays Woods, opposite Denzel Washington as Biko. After his long-standing tenure on TV’s St. Elsewhere, Cry Freedom served to be Denzel’s breakthrough into starring roles in films. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the role, an award he would win two years later for Edward Zwick’s Glory.
I met Donald Woods once. He came to our sixth form as part of what I presume was a speaking tour of the UK. I remember a touch of awkwardness as he sat down at the front of the assembly area at a desk that was prepared for him. The teachers had decorated the desk with a pot plant that was probably a little too large for its purpose, and after sitting down, Woods looked quizzically at the plant, removed it and placed it on the floor next to him. “We’ll just move this down here,” he said, and everybody chuckled. This was the humanity of the man that Kline captured so well in Cry Freedom.
In the decades since, whenever I meet South Africans, I always tell them I’ve met Donald Woods. This should impress them, I think, but I’m always met with the same response: “Who?” To this day, I’ve never met a South African who has heard of him. Now, apart from their cartoonish depiction in Lethal Weapon 2, there can’t have been too many Hollywood films about South Africans in the late ‘80s. As a measure of how unseen – and unheard – South African voices were in that decade, Danny Glover’s Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon sequel can’t even describe the accent of the South African men who have broken into him home. It’s just so unfamiliar and alien to him (and the rest of the American cinema-going public).
So either I’ve met a bunch of uncultured South Africans in my life, or the film was somehow glossed over and ignored in the country in which it is set. I’m not sure what the answer is.
Hit: Crossroads – A Dawn Raid
Hidden Gem: Gumboots