NEW YORK — `A DRY WHITE SEASON'' is a newsmaking movie for more than one reason. It's one of the rare films to deal with the painful (and uncommercial) subject of racial oppression. It also marks the first screen appearance of Marlon Brando since 1980. And it's the first picture on apartheid in South Africa to be directed by a black filmmaker: Euzhan Palcy, a native of Martinique, whose first movie, ``Sugar Cane Alley,'' was an international success. The story takes place in 1976, during the early days of the Soweto Uprising against the apartheid system. The main character (Donald Sutherland) is a white schoolteacher who has never questioned the social and political arrangements of his country. He and his family live in a placid area of Johannesburg, and it hasn't really occurred to him that serious evils might be brewing in the way people live and work all around him.
His apathy changes abruptly when a young boy he knows - the son of his gardener - gets involved in a demonstration against the failings of the school system in Soweto, a black township where many of Johannesburg's black workers live. Police attack the demonstrators, and later both the gardener and his son die while in police custody. The teacher determines to find out what happened to them, and in the process he's radicalized in ways he never would have imagined possible.
This is a powerful story, and at moments it really comes alive. One of these times is when the hero goes to a white, liberal attorney (Mr. Brando) for help in his crusade, and the lawyer - overcoming his own cynicism about improvement in South Africa - makes a forceful case against the injustice of government policy. The screenplay, by Colin Welland and director Palcy, also makes an effort to give a balanced view of ordinary whites. It doesn't declare them uninvolved in the pernicious racism of their country's system, but it refrains from blaming them (as opposed to the people who enforce the system) for every murderous twist of apartheid.
``A Dry White Season'' tries very hard to attack apartheid in an intelligent, hard-hitting way, but it too fails to reach the level of audience involvement it seeks. The story is so neatly constructed that it seems more like a lesson plan than a slice of life. Mr. Sutherland's performance as the hero is too cautious and methodical. And while Brando is spectacular as the cynical lawyer, he's only in the picture for about 10 minutes.