I went into A Dry White Season without any prior knowledge of the film and I must say I was very pleased. A Dry White Season is a very good, very powerful film, similar to Hotel Rwanda.
The film takes place in 1976 South Africa, during apartheid. Donald Sutherland plays Ben du Toit, a schoolteacher. When Ben's long time friend and gardener Gordon (Winston Ntshona) comes to him asking for help because the police had whipped his son, Ben tells him he's sorry but there's nothing he can do. When Gordon comes to him again asking for help after his son has been killed, Ben again tells him he's sorry but there's nothing he can do.
Gordon is obviously very upset at the death of his son, and makes the decision to investigate the matter. Any kind of investigation by a private citizen into the matters of the Special Police is a very risky undertaking. The way they operate is very secretive and very shady and they don't want the truth to be known by the white society and they will do anything to keep it that way, including torture and murder.
It's not long before the Special Police take Gordon into custody. They immediately begin beating and torturing him in an attempt to find out the names of anyone who gave him information on the death of his son. Within a matter of days he is dead.
The Special Police bring word of Gordon's death to his wife Emily (Thoko Ntshinga). They tell her that Gordon committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell. Of course Emily does not believe this to be true, and sends word to Ben by way of a good friend, Stanley (Zakes Mokae). Ben has no reason to believe that Gordon would commit suicide, and is now starting to become suspicious of the Special Police and asks Stanley to take him to see Gordon's body. It is very dangerous for a white man to go into the town, but Stanley agrees to take him. Upon arrival at the funeral home and viewing Gordon's body, it becomes painfully obvious to Ben that Gordon did not in fact kill himself, he was murdered.
Ben feels absolutely terrible that he did not help Gordon and his family when he had the chance, and he wants to do everything in his power to bring justice to the situation. He employs the great human rights lawyer Ian McKenzie (Marlon Brando) to bring charges to the Special Police and especially their captain, a man named Stolz (Jürgen Prochnow). Stolz is one sadistic bastard. He is the man who personally hunts down anyone who he sees as a threat to the Special Police and he personally tortures them and seems to enjoy every minute of it.
McKenzie tries to explain to Ben that it will be of no use to try and bring these sadists to justice, that there is no justice in South Africa, but Ben feels he owes to Gordon to at least try. McKenzie assures Ben that he will do everything he can in assisting him, even though it will be to no avail. Of course McKenzie is correct, they are unable to win the case. They do succeed, however, in exposing a lot of Captain Stolz's inhumane activities to the public.
Despite his loss in the trial, Ben refuses to give up. He and Stanley hire another lawyer from within the black community, and go around collecting sworn affidavits from people who witnessed the capture and murder of Gordon's son. This leads to Captain Stolz's attempt to take down Ben, as well as Ben's alienation from the community that he has lived in his entire life. His friends and family turn against him, and he loses his job but he keeps on fighting.
It's really a shame that no one seems to remember this film. I only stumbled upon it because I have been watching all of Marlon Brando's films, and I'm glad I did. Director Euzhan Palcy does a very good job of showing us the brutality in South Africa without being too graphic. I cannot say that I am familiar with any of her other work, so I don't know how A Dry White Season stacks up against it, but according to IMDb it is her second highest rated (behind Sugar Cane Alley) and her best known work.
Donald Sutherland, who is an underrated actor in my opinion, does a very good job in the lead role. He is such a versatile actor who can do anything from comedy to tragedy and do a great job in either of them. Marlon Brando and Susan Sarandon are also superb in their small but important roles, but the best performance was put in by the relatively unknown Winston Ntshona.
I think films like A Dry White Season, Blood Diamond, and Hotel Rwanda are very important. Americans tend to overlook the horrible things that are going on in Africa, and although the problems that the aforementioned films are about have since been resolved there are still massacres going on in many African countries and these films help bring that into light. I would definitely recommend A Dry White Season; many do not remember it but it is certainly a very good film with great acting and a powerful story and message.