From 1948 to 1990, the government of South Africa practiced a system of segregation called apartheid (which means “separateness” in the Afrikaans language), where the white minority enjoyed all of the rights and privileges of citizenship, while the black majority often suffered at the heavy hand of law enforcement, legally oppressed with no recourse.
Director Euzhan Palcy’s 1989 film A Dry White Season vividly brings the reality of apartheid to light. Although 16 years have passed since the film was released, it remains an important work. Younger generations may not be as familiar with apartheid as those of us who were adults in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a period of history that shouldn’t be forgotten.
A Dry White Season is based on Andre Brink’s novel of the same name. It is 1976, and white schoolteacher Ben du Toit (Donald Sutherland) is enjoying the good life with his wife, Susan (Janet Suzman) and his two children. Ben, his family and colleagues are oblivious to life outside their white neighborhood.
In the black townships, life isn’t so great. Schoolchildren in Soweto have decided to hold a non-violent protest of their inferior education (they want to be taught English, not Afrikkaans, the language of South African whites). Riot police are called out and open fire on the unarmed children.
Ben’s longtime gardner, Gordon (Winston Ntshona) tells Ben that Gordon’s son, Jonathan (Bekhithemba Mpofu) has been arrested by the police during the riot. Gordon has no idea where Jonathan is. Ben tells Gordon not to worry, the police wouldn’t be holding his son without cause. Gordon knows better, and eventually discovers that his son has died (or, rather, been killed). While Gordon is out searching for his son, he is captured by the Special Branch police force and tortured to death; the police claim he comitted suicide. Ben is finally outraged and decides he wants to help bring justice to Gordon’s wife, Emily (Thoko Ntshinga). Ben is aided by a cab driver named Stanley (Zakes Mokae), who has been fighting the system for a long time. He’s impressed by Ben’s dedicaiton, even though he knows it’s probably not going to change things.
Ben hires human rights attorney Ian McKenzie (Marlon Brando, who was so impressed by Euzhan Palcy’s work that he agreed to work for free) to represent Emily in the inquest. McKenzie, like Stanley, knows the system is corrupt and that even if they were able to bring charges against the police of the Special Branch, the laws would be changed and the charges dismissed.
“Justice and law could be described as distant cousins, and here in South Africa, they’re not even on speaking terms,” McKenzie tells Ben.
Justice does not prevail in the trial, and all charges are dropped against the Special Branch and one of its officers, Captain Stolz (Jurgen Prochnow), who we know tortured Gordon to death.
The last act of the film has Ben attempting to bring the torture of Gordon and the killing of the children at Soweto to light. He meets a reporter, Melanie Bruwer (Susan Sarandon), who agrees to have her paper publish affidavits provided by eyewitnesses to the crimes of the Special Branch. Ben’s search for the truth turns his world upside-down: he loses his job, his wife leaves him, and his daughter has betrayed him by working with the police to bring Ben down, and Ben pays the ultimate price for his efforts at getting to the truth.
The cast is marvelous. Donald Sutherland is quietly effective as Ben, a man who had believed his whole life that the system worked, and never questioned his government. Marlon Brando plays attorney McKenzie in just the right way, with cynicism and bemusement. In lesser hands the performance could have been way over the top, but Brando keeps McKenzie grounded. Zakes Mokae as Stanley is also very good, with a cynical wit. Some of the other characters are a bit one-dimensioned. Susan Sarandon doesn’t have much to do in this film. The evil Captain Stolz, as portrayed by Prochnow, is essentially playing a Nazi. Janet Suzman, playing Sutherland’s wife, Janet, seems only to serve the point of being a bitter spouse who doesn’t want to give up the good life to help out the blacks outside her field of vision.
Palcy’s direction is a bit heavy-handed at times, although undoubtedly necessary for the time the film was made, in an era where people outside of South Africa were just beginning to realize what was happening in that country. And while it would be easy to criticize her for featuring a white actor as the main protagonist, rather than from the point of view of a black actor, it’s important to look deeper at the casting. Palcy was attempting to bring to light South Africa’s horrible record of human rights violations, and by having a white protagonist open his eyes to the inhumane treatment of others, it surely helped folks who didn’t know anything about apartheid to perhaps understand it a bit better. That’s not to say Sutherland was more important to the story than anyone else. This was his character’s journey, a journey that costs him everything.
Video quality is adequate. A Dry White Season is presented in its theatrical aspect ration of 1.85:1. Colors are generally good, although the darker tones tend to blend together. Audio is a very basic Dolby Digital 2.0. There are no special features, just the theatrical trailer.