Part two in my six-week miniseries on South African films: A Dry White Season.
I’ll just go ahead and say it: This movie is not the best thing ever made. In fact, it’s probably a less-than-average film, except for the story. What is being told is critically important, but how it is told is not handled with any great finesse.
1976, Soweto township, South Africa: Ben Du Toit (Donald Sutherland) is a grandfatherly, kind-looking schoolteacher who also happens to be an incredibly privileged Afrikaner living in a white enclave somewhere in the Johannesburg suburbs. His gardener, a black South African named Gordon Ngubene, asks Du Toit for help after Ngubene’s son is detained, caned, released, arrested again, tortured, hospitalized, and dies as part of the Soweto riots. Du Toit, an (ostensibly) typical white South African, at first refuses to get involved, convinced that Ngubene’s son must have died for a reason. Instead, after raising too many questions about his son’s death, Ngubene himself is detained, tortured (waterboarded), and murdered by the special police unit. Du Toit is shocked by how quickly both of them died, and demands to be smuggled into Soweto to look at Ngubene’s dead body in a funeral parlor. Upon seeing his mutilated face and severely burned and scarred body, Du Toit swears to seek justice.
If that synopsis confused you, allow me to break it down a bit. (I’m not trying to be condescending–before I went to South Africa myself in 2011 I would have had a hard time interpreting the movie).
- Afrikaner is the name given to the (now descendants of) Dutch colonialists in South Africa. They speak a language derived from Dutch: Afrikaans. They are also referred to (sometimes derogatorily) as Boers, which means farmer. (Many of the Dutch settlers in the 18th century were farmers).
- Soweto is the largest township (i.e., shantytown) in South Africa located on the fringes of Johannesburg. It was, and still is, predominately inhabited by black South Africans who commut(ed) to work every day as gardeners, maids, nannies, cleaning ladies, dishwashers, taxi drivers, etc. When I was in Johannesburg, I stayed at a hostel called Bob’s Bunkhouse. The white lady who co-owned the hostel with her husband was probably the nastiest person I met the whole time I was in the country, and made a series of racist remarks about the black South African maid who singlehandedly did all of the cleaning work involved in running the hostel. Whew, but that has been on my chest for nearly 3 years. More details below.
- 1976 was a pivotal year in South Africa. Two years earlier, the government had passed the Afrikaans Medium Decree, which stated that all students in the Bantu (i.e., black African) education system were to be instructed in a 50:50 ratio of Afrikaans and English. English was controversial enough, but Afrikaans was the language of the colonizers, and the students protested. On June 16, 1976, a group of 20,000 students marched through Soweto. At least 176 students died, and someone managed to take a photograph of Hector Pieterson, a student who was shot by the police. This is one of the most iconic images of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Back to the movie. Newly-magnanimous Ben Du Toit enlists the help of a British human rights lawyer, Ian McKenzie, to bring a lawsuit against the special police unit for murdering his beloved gardener Ngubene. A phlegmatic Marlon Brando plays the jaded but sincere lawyer who has long since abandoned hope of achieving justice in South Africa’s white-controlled legal system. Indeed, it’s just as he predicts: the presiding judge is an unforgivable racist; the trial, a complete farce. Brando’s bit definitely sticks out in terms of acting quality. Not that Sutherland isn’t good, it’s just that, well, the character he plays is so naive and spineless that it’s hard to think of him as any sort of hero. And really, he isn’t much of one at all.
The end of the film [spoiler warning!!] is also unsatisfying. The chief of the secret police runs over Ben Du Toit with his car, but not until Du Toit’s loyal son turns in a collection of affidavits to a prominent newspaper, thus blowing the whole story wide open. Basically, a lot of people die, and all of their deaths are unbelievably blatant murders on the part of the special police.
So. It’s a pretty straightforward story of atrocities happening under the apartheid government and what happens when a white guy dares to stick his neck out [hint: he still gets murdered, just not as quickly as if his skin were a darker shade]. And of course the white guy gets to be the hero. It’s not particularly well-acted, the blood and gore are profoundly fake, the hairstyles super 80s, the music misplaced, and what the heck is Susan Sarandon doing playing a reporter who never reports anything?
But the movie does have one particularly interesting element. Namely, how Du Toit is treated as a “traitor” to “his people,” the white Afrikaners. Du Toit’s racist wife was the worst character, in my opinion. Did she torture anyone? No. But she was firmly in favor of turning a blind eye to torture, racism, and a broken legal system in order to maintain her plushy, middle-class lifestyle. And that, my friends, is the type of racism (and subtle structural violence) that’s still very much present in South Africa today.
In what was, for me, a particularly disturbing scene containing no guns, blood, fire, or dead bodies, Du Toit and his wife talk about his ongoing legal battles in their appliance-riddled kitchen. Du Toit’s wife says something along the lines of, “I know that what’s happening is bad. But I’m so afraid of what will happen if the blacks come into power. If given the opportunity, they’ll do the same things to us that we’re doing to them. It’s as simple as that. It’s a war. You have to choose sides. You’re either with your people, or you don’t have a people.” To which Du Toit rather lamely replies, “I have to choose the truth.”
A year after the movie was made, Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. Four years later, he was elected president of a newly-democratic South Africa. There is no longer de jure apartheid in the country. White South Africans were not tortured, jailed, detained, put on trial, or murdered. Instead, the African National Congress pushed forth legislation to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which perpetrators and sufferers of human rights violations discussed their crimes and horrors in a series of open hearings. Perpetrators were granted amnesty almost 90% of the time.
And yet, 17 years after democracy was established and black South Africans (for the most part) peacefully displaced the apartheid regime, you still get nasty white South Africans, like Joan at Bob’s Bunkhouse, complaining that “blacks are screwing up the country.” You’ll find nothing but glowing reviews of the hostel online, because yes, at first glance, Joan and Bob run an almost family-like hostel. But stay there for two weeks and you’ll notice that when riots happen in Soweto and the maid can’t get to work on time because it’s dangerous to travel, Joan calls her lazy and threatens to fire her. Notice that when you go with her to the supermarket, she takes a look at low-stocked shelves and blames it on inherent black laziness. If you are skeptical, Angela from Massachusetts got the same impression. (And no, there were no black guests when I was there–just me and a big group of kids from Portugal). My blog is getting decently indexed on Google now, and I sincerely hope that some potential South African backpackers read this and make the right decision not to stay at Bob’s Bunkhouse.
Overall movie rating: B-