So much of our Important Cinema portrays issues such as war and disease and poverty and racism through the stories of heroes possessed of a strength and courage--not to mention remarkable luck and good looks--that most of us could never know. Often these extraordinary tales, true or not, make "inspirational" exceptions to the historical rule, whether it's the fraction of the three percent of Polish Jews that survived the Holocaust (due to the rare good will of a reformed Nazi party member) or the white FBI agents whose humanitarian fortitude brought civil rights into being. Good and evil are clearly defined in these soaring tributes to the human spirit, even as the epic sweep of Fate is made to seem so much more potent than the infinitesimal actions of people like us.
In this context, what's truly inspirational about Long Night's Journey Into Day is how thoroughly it flouts the prevailing view of political heroism as something akin to winning the lottery. A wrenchingly straightforward documentary portrait of post-apartheid South Africa, the film examines the grueling process of a nation's healing through four stories of ordinary citizens participating in hearings conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), an organization formed in 1994 to allow perpetrators of political crimes to seek amnesty, and the families of victims to hear the truth about their loved ones' deaths. In one of the film's case studies, the mother of a murdered black activist publicly forgives her son's killer, a black officer of the South African secret police, and the emotional impact of this moment is overwhelming. But what exactly are the politics of reconciliation? If anger is an energy, as the song goes, then what is forgiveness?
Hardly the easy way out, that's for sure. That the TRC hearings are not only open to the public but broadcast live on national radio would seem essential to this sort of group therapy, although the process is certainly no more tranquil than that of the average soul-baring turn on The Jerry Springer Show. (Imagine addressing your son's killer for the first time on All Things Considered.) Neither is the procedure uniformly cathartic or predictably shaded: To their credit, codirectors Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann have selected the film's stories in order to emphasize the many shades of gray in an ongoing struggle that's too often viewed as black and white.
The first is the case of Amy Biehl, a Fulbright exchange student and human-rights activist who was murdered in Cape Town in 1993 by four young black men chanting anti-white sentiments--another exception to the rule, it seems, particularly for having merited more worldwide news coverage than countless white-on-black hate crimes perpetrated during apartheid. Displaying the sort of principled compassion normally reserved for saints, Biehl's middle-aged parents visit the home of one of the killer's mothers and immediately take her in their arms. That this woman appears more distraught than the victim's family is the film's first example of the pervasive unpredictability of grief.
Subsequent episodes are even more complicated. A black government operative admits to the mothers of seven murdered "terrorists" that he was coerced by his white superiors into training the men as revolutionaries with the intent of killing them. A black South African freedom fighter whose bombing of a cocktail bar claimed the lives of three white women testifies persuasively to his lifelong oppression, while the sister of one of the victims, speaking from a white and well-off neighborhood of Cape Town, denies responsibility for apartheid "just because we have white-colored skin." Of course, this is precisely the kind of obliviousness to privilege that allows whites to continue benefiting from apartheid several years after its formal passing.
In this film about the power of personal storytelling versus the Hollywood model of whitewashed half-truths, it's particularly ironic that a white security policeman who slaughtered four black activists in cold blood would here cite Mississippi Burning--the aforementioned endorsement of the FBI's great struggle for civil rights--as an invaluable aid to his own political awakening. Could it be that one critic's cinematic atrocity is a cop's ultimate salvation? Clearly, retribution works in mysterious ways, and yet Long Night's Journey Into Day achieves much of its force through the blunt demystification of activism. Political struggle isn't about rallying around a hero, but about a multitude of often excruciating personal choices. In the case of apartheid, that struggle isn't near over.
Long Night's Journey Into Day starts Friday at U Film Society; (612) 627-4430. Proceeds from a special advance screening at U Film on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. will benefit Shared Interest, a New York-based nonprofit group investing in South Africa's democratic development; and the International Leadership Institute, a nonprofit volunteer organization working in partnership with African nations in transition. For more information about Thursday's screening (tickets are $15), call (612) 296-5779.