Ebony and Ivory

Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country was the only novel of its kind when it was published in 1948: a tragic and politically forceful examination of South African apartheid, presented through the story of a Zulu Anglican pastor, his chance encounter with a white landowner, and both men's loss of their sons. It was first adapted to film in 1951 by British director Zoltan Korda--who, despite the conservatism of the day, delivered a rare screen portrait of bleak race relations.

The latest version, directed by white South African filmmaker Darrell James Roodt (who also made Sarafina!), is unique in that it's the first feature to have been shot in the newly democratic South Africa; it's also unique in having been recently endorsed by President Nelson Mandela (whose opinion that the movie represents "a monument to the future" is being used in ads by those opportunistic execs at Miramax).

Frankly, there's plenty about this film to inspire cynicism. For one thing, it's yet another Liberal Message Movie whose pleas for racial tolerance don't seem much like revelations. Then there's the fact that, in turning Paton's harrowing narrative into a tasteful feature, director Roodt has finessed the story's progression from tragedy to heartwarmer in a manner that's rather too palatable. Nevertheless, Cry, the Beloved Country is less fraudulent and sappy than any number of recent race-themed movies (i.e. Losing Isaiah, White Man's Burden, Jefferson in Paris). And its story, however diluted from the novel's, does serve to allegorize a barbaric reality that, until recently, was still very much in place.

The film opens on a picturesque Zulu village circa 1946, where Reverend Stephen Kumalo (James Earl Jones) receives word that his sister is in trouble in Johannesburg. Kumalo's brother (Charles S. Dutton), a political activist, and his son (Eric Miyeni), a thief, have also left for the big city and not returned. Roodt does an economical job of contrasting the reverend and his struggles to keep his family together with the rich white farmer James Jarvis (Richard Harris), who's shown with his wife and grandson in various well-off surroundings tended by black servants. If anything, the movie draws its characters' dichotomies too cleanly: Roodt has the Harris character simplistically stating "Blacks have their place, we have our place... but separately"; and Jones's poetic voiceovers, intended to work as the equivalent to Paton's narrative voice, fail to add much depth to the mix (it's tough to divorce this voice from it's previous appearances on CNN and in the Star Wars trilogy). Meanwhile, Jarvis learns of the death of his activist son, who was killed, he's told, by "a gang of natives." Eventually Jarvis discovers that the murderer is in fact Kumalo's son.

From the movie's first scene--in which John Barry's syrupy musical score is laid over a Color Purple-style tracking shot of a young girl running through a cornfield--Cry, the Beloved Country announces itself as a tearjerker. Fortunately the movie is also a showcase for the sort of impassioned acting that can fill in the gaps of even a by-the-numbers melodrama. The film's most powerful scene depicts the men's first meeting: Kumalo, visibly shaking with fear, informs Jarvis of the connection between their sons; Jarvis, sensing in Kumalo the despair that he himself feels over his son's death, learns during the course of this short scene to show forgiveness. The performances are transcendent: The images of oppression that Roodt has avoided become manifest in Jones's weary demeanor; and even amid some cloying dialogue, Harris lends a believable sense of discovery to his realization that suffering is universal and that, as his son had written, "It is not native crime that is the problem, but white crime."

Cry, the Beloved Country is beautifully shot and compellingly acted, although the script's lack of detail makes it pale alongside Paton's book. The poverty and racism described in detail in the novel--the exploitation of black workers for cheap mining labor, the gulf between white and black hospitals--are, in the movie, merely alluded to rather than shown. And aside from a brief scene of white-on-black violence (which is annoyingly abstracted through Roodt's uses of slow-motion, Jones's reasoned narration, and that overbearing music again), the filmmakers ultimately decide that we've had enough of racial cruelty. True enough, although in dramatic terms, Cry, the Beloved Country plays too much like forgiveness without rage, catharsis without horror; it depends more on the viewer's imagination than any powerful melodrama should.

Both the film and the novel end with a white man offering a black man money to build a new church; the message, which was surely more vital at the time the book was written, is that human decency on the part of whites--and prayer and endurance on the part of blacks--can bring concrete rewards. But now that apartheid (at least institutional apartheid) has been vanquished from South Africa, this instantly dated movie makes little progress toward addressing the question of what comes now. CP

Cry, the Beloved Country is playing at Lagoon Cinema.

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