Review by Eva Holland
Posted on 10 July 2007
Source Fox VHS
My mother refers cynically to A Dry White Season as “Hollywood does Apartheid,” and at times it does feel like a sort of cinematic SparkNotes, checking off the key themes of the apartheid years in South Africa one by one. But there are other times when the film moves beyond the bullet-point presentation of information, and manages instead to powerfully recreate the attitudes and harsh realities of the time. It is particularly strong in its depiction of the whites who sustained, and benefited from, the regime.
A Dry White Season follows the story of Ben du Toit, a high school history teacher and happily married father of two, whose eyes are gradually opened to the repressive nature of his government. The movie is set in June 1976, beginning just days before the South African police opened fire on a crowd of black students marching peacefully against a new school curriculum. Several children were killed, and the incident marked the beginning of the Soweto Uprising, a month or more of violence in which hundreds of black children and teenagers were killed, and thousands more injured. Gordon Ngubene, the du Toit family gardener, comes to Ben for help when his son, Jonathan, is arrested in the initial protest. Ben is skeptical at first that the police would arrest a young boy without good reason, but when Gordon, too, disappears into the clutches of the sinister Special Branch, he begins to ask questions.
The early scenes are filled with some fairly heavy-handed scene-setting: director Euzhan Palcy cuts rapidly between scenes of police brutality in the black townships on the one hand, and the du Toit children playing happily in their garden, or being cheered on at a school rugby game, on the other; and the dialogue between Gordon and Jonathan before the protest, used to explain the reasons for the march, is far from subtle. “We want to learn English,” Jonathan tells his father angrily, and clearly for the benefit of the viewer rather than his father. “We don’t want to learn in Afrikaans!” Ben’s wife, meanwhile, suggests that Jonathan must not be the innocent that Gordon claims. “He must have done something, Ben,” she says—allowing us to check “Denial” off our handy list of Reasons Why Whites Supported the Apartheid Regime.
As the story gets going, though, the awkward exposition of the early stages falls away. Ben becomes increasingly involved in his search for the truth, and the white society around him responds with increasing levels of hostility. Donald Sutherland keeps Ben’s responses nicely understated and free of melodrama as his assumptions are shattered one by one, and as colleagues and family members turn on him. Even when his family can no longer deny what is happening, they still refuse to condemn it; other concerns — self-interest, for one, and fear — take over. Confronted with proof that the police are torturing and murdering young black students, Ben’s wife is unmoved. “I heard what the police did, and I’m not saying that was right, but don’t you think the blacks would do the same to us, or worse, if they win?” she asks Ben. “It’s like in war, and you have to choose sides. Maybe terrible things are being done to them, maybe, but we have to survive. You have to choose your own people, or you have no people.”
The depiction of Ben’s ostracizing is one of the strongest elements of the film. By emphasizing the impact of resistance on the details of everyday life, the mundane consequences — such as Ben’s son being bullied at school — as well as the dramatic ones, Palcy is able to demonstrate the pervasive power of state repression, and to explain, to a certain extent, why such a brutal system was tolerated by South Africa’s whites for so long.
However, while isolation would certainly qualify as one of our “Key Themes,” Ben is not entirely without allies. Marlon Brando is wonderful as a sympathetic lawyer willing to fight Ben’s case. He exudes a strange blend of defiance and resignation; his lawyer dryly and contemptuously takes the Special Branch’s defense to pieces, knowing all the while that he will lose the case nonetheless. The courtroom scene is probably, alongside the re-creation of the Soweto protest, the best in the film.
There’s a little more awkwardness in the final stages of the film, as Ben, left-wing journalist Melanie, and Gordon’s friend Stanley engage in some cloak-and-dagger that betrays the subtle emotion of the scenes between Ben and his family. The ending, though, manages to combine a grim statement about the consequences of resistance with a slim thread of hope; a note of optimism that may have surprised some people in 1989 — when South Africa still had the potential to collapse into a full-on civil war and another fifty years of bloodshed — but which today, thankfully, appears just right.