Cry, the Beloved Country (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Most films focusing on the racial division of South Africa are framed around a mood of seething anger and tension. The inequities of the recently-abolished apartheid system have provided fuel for a series of motion pictures steeped in bitterness and outrage. Beyond the evils of the system and those who supported it, however, were issues of racial harmony and mutual tolerance -- subjects never dealt with more effectively than in Alan Paton's landmark 1946 novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. This film, the second (and better) adaptation of the book, has little room for hatred or anger. Instead, its underlying tone is one of a profound grief that the title hints at.

Taken as a whole, Paton's novel promotes healing and understanding, and it speaks as powerfully to audiences today as it did when it was first published, fifty years ago. This 1995 film version is entirely faithful to its source material. At times, sections of dialogue are lifted directly from the printed page. More importantly, however, Paton's themes are brought home with devastating, soul-crushing impact through a production that captures the book's spirit as adeptly as it recounts the narrative. There is not a false note in Cry, the Beloved Country. Every scene is an example of near-perfect composition and execution.

In the aftermath of World War Two, South Africa is a divided country -- a land of growing injustice where the white man prospers through the efforts of the black man, and where the majority of the wealth is in the hands of the racial minority. Whites live in beautifully-constructed mansions with immaculately-groomed gardens. Blacks are often forced to eke out an existence by turning to crime and living as squatters in a shantytown. The specter of fear looms large over everything. All men, black and white alike, feel its oppressive, pervasive influence.

In this climate, two very different men come to the city of Johannesburg. Though they are both from the rural district of Natal and have a mutual dislike of city life, they have never met. The first is a black pastor, Reverend Stephen Kumalo (James Earl Jones), who has left behind his poor community to make the journey in search of his son. The second is a white landowner, James Jarvis (Richard Harris), who has come to Johannesburg to bury his only child, Arthur, the victim of a shooting by three black youths, one of whom was Absalom Kumalo (Eric Miyeni), Stephen's son.

Arthur Jarvis was a well-known activist for native rights who devoted his life to improving circumstances for the blacks of Johannesburg. Whites did not understand him; blacks embraced him. Those at the Claremont African Boys Club, where he was president, loved him not only for the money he spent on the facility, but for the time he freely gave. In his writings, he spoke of South African whites as "tyrants, oppressors, and criminals." Ironically, his own death came at the hands of one of those he sought to help. But Absalom Kumalo did not kill out of malice. His only defense when confronted by the police is "I was afraid; I did not mean to shoot him."

The meat of Cry, the Beloved Country concerns how events in the wake of the shooting transform the lives of Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis. Each is forced to abandon their naivete and confront the grim truths of reality. For Stephen, this means a crisis of faith and a re-assessment of his role in the world. For James, it means coming to terms with the core of his son's beliefs and seeing his own bigotry for what it is. In the end, each gains more than he loses, yet the price of that new knowledge cuts deeply.

Both James Earl Jones and Richard Harris, two screen veterans, are superb. Finely-tuned performances like these illustrate how shallow the acting is in most contemporary films. Go over a list of potential Academy Award nominees for 1995 and contrast their work to what Jones and Harris accomplish here. Few will weather that comparison favorably. Separately, these two are riveting, but their scenes together lift Cry, the Beloved Country to a higher plateau. The initial meeting between Stephen and James is one of the most potent scenes not just of the year, but of the decade.

The supporting cast is populated by lesser-known, but not necessarily lesser-talented, figures. Charles Dutton, a familiar face from recent movies and television, has a small role as John Kumalo, Stephen's political activist brother. Leleti Kumalo, who had the lead in Sarafina!, plays Absalom's wife, Katie. Vusi Kunene is Reverend Theophilus Msimangu, Stephen's friend and guide in Johannesburg (this is the part played by Sidney Poitier in the 1951 film).

Many share in the credit for Cry, the Beloved Country's unqualified success. Jones and Harris head the list alongside director Darrell James Roodt (Sarafina!), whose touch is true. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood has adapted the novel with care, using voiceover narration from the book sparingly (there are three instances of this: at the beginning, during a mid-point interlude, and at the end). John Barry's evocative score provides the perfect accompaniment to Paul Gilpin's cinematography.

Rarely does a motion picture touch the heart so deeply, with no hint of artifice or manipulation. Producer Anant Singh has said he wanted to wait to film this version of Cry, the Beloved Country until after apartheid's death so that the new climate in South Africa could provide a more hopeful backdrop. The timing is right, for today's circumstances quiet one of Paton's great concerns: that "when the white man turns to loving, the black man will have turned to hating." Cry, the Beloved Country shows the path of tolerance and compassion that the leaders of South Africa have finally found.

Cry, the Beloved Country (United States, 1995)

Ranked #1 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1995
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 1995-12-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1