Cry Freedom, the Richard Attenborough film, is yet another attempt to rewrite recent history using a prism of liberal shibboleths and the civil rights experience in the United States from which to make judgments. The film is based on the so-called friendship between Bantu leader Steve Biko, the black consciousness proponent, and Donald Woods, a white liberal newspaper reporter, and their united effort to undermine the hateful apartheid system. Yet the friendship between Biko and Woods—if one relies on Biko’s written claims—was a contrivance and their views of dismantling apartheid very different.
According to intimates, Biko didn’t know Woods very well at all. He carefully cultivated his friendships among those he could trust in the South African Students’ Organization and Black Peoples Convention. Yet Attenborough relied on the self-serving books Donald Woods wrote as if they are realistic depictions of the Biko-Woods friendship.
Peter Cyril Jones, the last black man to see Biko alive, contends that whatever friendship existed between these men was of a “mutually abusive nature.” Biko gained access to the pages of Woods’s newspaper, and Woods gained access to a black leader, which enhanced his standing among liberal friends. Moreover, this relationship allowed Woods some acquaintance with the black consciousness movement in which Biko was a major figure.
Yet Biko was an unlikely soul mate of Woods, notwithstanding Attenborough’s claim to the contrary. In his essay “Black Souls in White Skins” Biko unintentionally provides the most damaging indictment of the film. He claims that the real oppressors of blacks are white liberals who organize for blacks, think for blacks, and act for blacks. In South Africa, he argued, these people, who, most assuredly, would include Donald Woods, have attempted to entrench a white trusteeship over blacks. It is absurd to believe, Biko maintains, that white-black integration could solve South Africa’s problems. Attenborough’s attempt at glorifying integration in the name of a symbiotic black-white relationship is a disservice to truth and to the principles Biko espoused.
Biko systematically disapproved of any Bantu followers who allowed themselves to be drawn into relationships with white liberals. He indicated in almost all his public utterances the damage to blacks that emerges from integration. Blacks, Biko noted, have been made to feel inferior in South Africa for so long that for them the slightest gesture of humane treatment is misinterpreted. Such treatment allows some blacks to consider themselves superior to their fellowmen who do not receive similar gestures from whites. In this instance is to be found the degradation of blacks and the paternalism of white liberals.
These reflections, of course, do not suggest that Biko was only mildly critical of the government in South Africa, which constructed the legal edifice of apartheid, reserving his animus for white liberals. He fought vigorously against apartheid, sometimes aimlessly and sometimes foolishly, but he realized that white liberals were more culpable of racial stereotyping than Afrikaner leaders. He also realized that those whites who represented themselves as friends to black leaders couldn’t bring about a fundamental alteration of the political system.
Whether Biko was right remains to be seen. But on one matter there isn’t any dispute among black colleagues who knew him well: the Attenborough film. Cry Freedom, is a complete distortion of the South African political situation. The film quite obviously seeks to restructure the meaning of Biko’s work to justify a particular view—and I might add naive view—of South Africa’s future.
This isn’t the first time Sir Richard Attenborough has used his political beliefs as the lens for his films. Certainly he has every right to do so. He is also consistently honored for his personal interpretation of history. He is the recipient of the Jean Renoir Humanitarian Award, had a day named for him in Los Angeles, and Cry Freedom has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award. But it is important to appreciate that this man who claims to believe deeply in freedom would allow officials of the African National Congress to review and censor this film before it was released. One might justifiably ask why the ANC was given this privilege and why, with recommendations duly accepted, this organization gave its stamp of approval for its distribution. One might also ask why a film that purports to be a slice of history routinely ignores actual conditions in South Africa in order to paint a portrait that is compatible with the director’s impressions and political goals.
Leave a Reply