Race Matters

New York--

IT'S NOT EVERY movie whose world premiere is introduced by South African President Nelson Mandela at a $500-per-seat benefit screening for homeless, illiterate, and jailed South African youth. And it's not every studio junket in which newspaper writers of color make up half of the invited guest list, or in which the film's press conference is dominated by questions about race and art rather than the typical slew of blurb-copy hacks asking, "So... you worked with Sharon Stone?" A rare pleasure, indeed.

Mandela's pre-screening speech for Cry, The Beloved Country praised the film as "a fine work of art"--which must have elated Miramax's co-president Harvey Weinstein, but didn't prevent junket-going critics from wondering about the film's potential for change. The next day, James Earl Jones walked into a hotel suite full of journalists carrying an envelope ("They just gave me my per diem," he says), then addressed how Kumalo, his reverend character, was designed to mirror Mandela. "This sort of gentle goodness can triumph--we've seen that in the case of President Mandela," Jones says. "But I'm not sure whether this gentleness will resonate with young viewers who are used to more aggressive material." What effect might the film be expected to have on U.S. race relations? one writer asked. "Movies can transcend wounds simply by putting issues on the table. As Shakespeare said, good stories should reflect nature; they should be bold."

But should inspiring the audience to cry buckets, as much of the screening crowd did, be the primary goal of such a movie? "It's true that Hollywood requires you to grease the penis before inserting it," Jones says. "But Cry isn't The Scarlet Letter, you know--we didn't reconceive the novel. I believe we kept as much of [Alan] Paton's original spirit and agenda as a film could." Director Darrell James Roodt says his challenge was to make the film's slow pace and conciliatory mood engaging for the MTV-Dead Presidents crowd. "The tone would have been different if the film were made even two years ago," Roodt says. "It would have been more angry and provocative. But those films have been made already. Now it's time for healing and forgiveness."

Roodt's next film promises to deliver something else again: Shot in South Africa, The Spear is a relationship movie starring Ice Cube and Elizabeth Hurley, who play a crack addict and a stripper, respectively. The director admits that his new movie is "miles away" from Cry, while sharing its ambition to hook the audience dramatically before introducing weightier themes. "The best thing you can do," Roodt says, "is make a film that'll cross over."

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