It's hard to imagine that there was a time in the recent past when the apartheid social policy in South Africa wasn't well understood. But towards the end of the 1980s a number of media events brought the racist South African regime's unjust actions to mainstream American audiences, including Little Steven's all star "Sun City" record (the best mega-celeb cause track in the "We Are The World" era), as well as the 1987 film Cry Freedom and 1989's A Dry White Season. While both films were affecting and did a fine job of making the unjust nature of apartheid vividly real, they both suffered from a common problem with Hollywood films on racially charged topics: Focusing too much on a white protagonist's point of view. This can be seen in lots of films on race, from Mississippi Burning to Glory.
A Dry White Season does take this conceit, however, and use it to its maximum potential. That's because the audience surrogate, Ben du Toit (Donald Sutherland, great as always), starts the film a well-intentioned but clueless man and learns, along with the viewer, of the brutal nature of his nation. At the start, du Toit, an upper-middle class schoolteacher, has the opportunity to help out his black gardener Gordon (Winston Ntshona) when the man reaches out to him. Gordon's son is arrested by South African police forces and caned across his rear. Gordon tells du Toit that the boy was innocent but his boss suggests that they just let it go, since the wounds will heal. "He must have done something," du Toit suggests, not understanding that the boy could have been tortured for no reason at all. Finally, he resignedly tells Gordon that there's nothing he can do.
In the quickly escalating clampdown of the townships, a peaceful protest turns into a bloodbath as police fire into the crowd, shooting children in the back. It's a grisly sight, made more sickening by the plain direction and the fact that this spectacle is indicative of the kind of violence that really happened. Gordon's son is arrested again but when he inquires as to where the boy is, he is told that he died in the "riot" and was buried in an undisclosed location. Once again Gordon pleads with du Toit to do something. And once again du Toit responds that there's nothing he can do. It seems absurd that he would still resist but Sutherland does a great job of portraying du Toit as a man who doesn't want to change the status quo. He likes his life and isn't ready to accept that it's built on a lie. The thought that his good fortune comes at such a high price for others is too much to bear.
Of course, things only get worse from there but ultimately du Toit can't fool himself any more. He joins Stanley (the outstanding Zakes Mokae), a militant black South African who keeps out of the limelight in order to evade persecution. Du Toit is also assisted in trying to get the truth about South Africa's big secret out by two white activists. Susan Sarandon plays anti-apartheid journalist Melanie and Marlon Brando plays Ian McKenzie, a cantankerous human rights attorney who agrees to take du Toit's case, if only to show him how impossible it is to find real justice in South Africa.
While Sarandon's role doesn't make much impact on the film, Brando delivers what was probably his last real performance. He clearly relishes the devilish wit and world-weary cynicism of McKenzie and, even though it's a small role (mostly consisting of an extended courtroom sequence) he makes the character riveting.
But du Toit's relationships with these progressives don't make his normal life any easier. His family is strained by his crusade and his wife (Janet Suzman) chooses to ignore what she starts to realize as reality in an effort to keep her life the way it was. The film suggests that this mindset is understandably human, but du Toit knows that you can't go back once you know the truth. As his life as he's always known it unravels bit by bit the film shows us who sticks with him and who doesn't.
On the level of personal drama du Toit's story is affecting. But as a concurrent story to apartheid it's a distraction. Where's the story of the Soweto boycotts, one of the most massive non-violent protests in history? A Dry White Season is definitely well-intentioned, but it feels like it isn't telling the whole story. Similarly, it does suggest that institutional racism, or evil in general, manifests when regular people lose sight of the big picture: There are some bureaucrats who are not evil per se but who're simply going with the flow. At the same time, however, the film offers a snarling villain in Jürgen Prochnow's Captain Stolz. Stolz gives the film an easy target for booing and hissing and, while characters like that undoubtedly existed, it's a character like Colonel Viljoen (Gerard Thoolen) who's truly terrifying due to the fact that he's just pushing pencils and gives no thought to the misery he's helping perpetuate.
Just about all of the film's performances are excellent, but I'd like to specifically point out Mokae, Ntshona and Thoko Ntshina (as Gordon's wife Emily), all of who give brave, powerful performances. I also wanted to point out Ernest Ndhlovu who plays Mabaso, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role, a man called to testify in McKenzie's case against the establishment. I was haunted by this man's brief performance, which contained barely more than a couple of words. The power and anger in his eyes is unforgettable.
Ndhlovu is like many of the fine supporting players in this film, relegated to the sidelines, but making tremendous impact there by grounding the film. Even when the story turns to du Toit family strife, the rest of this large and uniformly outstanding cast forces you to remember what's at stake.