"A Dry White Season" is an anti-apartheid film, a fictional story that resembles the true story told in "Cry Freedom": A white pillar of the South African community discovers he has been naive for too many years when he is thrust into a situation that brings him face to face with the government brutality suffered by blacks. The more he learns the more sympathetic he becomes and the more his own family suffers.
Both films have been criticized for their focus on the whites rather than the blacks to tell a story of black oppression, but "A Dry White Season" has the advantage of being directed and co-written by a black woman, Euzhan Palcy ("Sugar Cane Alley").Unfortunately, the film lacks a certain punch, a power that one might reasonably expect to sweep the audience away. Instead there are a few passionate set-pieces, quite a few plodding ones and sterling performances that show us how well-intentioned it all is.
Still, there is much to admire here, and on the whole, if the film doesn't quite satisfy, it does get its point across well enough to make it worth a look.
The setting is 1976 and the film begins just prior to the Soweto uprising.
Donald Sutherland, in what is easily the best performance of his three films this year (the others being the lamentable "Lost Angels" and "Lock Up"), is all quiet dignity as Ben du Toit, a prep school history teacher. He lives with his wife and son, and near his married daughter, in a white suburb of Johannesburg. He is blind to the problems tearing his country apart and not easily convinced that there is evil afoot in his country's government.
In fact, when his gardener's (Winston Ntshona) son is abducted by police during a demonstration, a demonstration that quickly turns tragic as children are gunned down in the street, Ben tells him not to worry, that the boy will certainly be released since he's innocent. But then his gardener also disappears.
Soon Ben is embroiled in the politics that are stifling not only blacks but South Africa in general, quickly alienating his fellow workers and his family in the process.
It's not an unfamiliar story and it moves along fairly predictably, with a few memorable moments offered up here and there, including a star turn, an extended two-scene cameo, by Marlon Brando as a lawyer engaged by Sutherland's character. Brando is marvelous to watch, and he has more than his share of interesting moments in the courtroom scene, but the entire bit is out of rhythm with the rest of the movie and therefore feels out of place. It's fun to watch, but not in the context of "A Dry White Season."
Susan Sarandon also has a small role as a crusading journalist, but she has hardy anything to do. This is Sutherland's show, and while he's up to it, the picture suffers from lacking other strengths. Zakes Mokae, however, as a rebel cabbie who ultimately takes justice into his own hands, is a marvel in an underwritten role. On the other hand, Jurgen Prochnow, as the Nazi-style head of the government's "special branch," is a stiff stereotype.
On the whole, "A Dry White Season," with its unflinching portrait of brutality and its pictures of children in peril will touch you, but it's not likely to carry you away.
It is rated R for considerable, though not unjustifiable, violence, some profanity and a quick nude photo.