`Gandhi' director films Biko story. `Cry Freedom' examines life and work of the black South African martyr

Stephen Biko, one of South Africa's most renowned black activists, died 10 years ago while in South African police custody. The accomplishments of his life and the events surrounding his death constitute one of the most important human rights stories of our time. They deserve a much better film than ``Cry Freedom,'' the new movie produced and directed by Richard Attenborough. ``Cry Freedom'' is based on writing by Donald Woods, a white South African newspaper editor. He met Biko in 1975, after the activist had been ``banned'' by the authorities - declared a nonperson, that is, with no right to travel, publish, or even stay in a room with more than one person not a family member.

Still under 30 years old, Biko had already organized the influential Black Consciousness Movement and worked intensively with black student and community programs. Under his influence, Mr. Woods moved from a liberal dislike of apartheid to a radical rejection of all racist policies.

Woods himself was banned and reviled after Biko's death. Eventually he fled South Africa with his family, smuggling out the manuscript of an illegal book he had written on Biko's life. That book and another by Woods are the basis of John Briley's screenplay, which reportedly had some additional input from members of the Anzian People's Organization among others in an effort to ensure accuracy.

Mr. Attenborough is very good at the logistics of filmmaking. He proved this recently in ``Gandhi'' and earlier in ``Oh What a Lovely War'' and ``A Bridge Too Far,'' all of which revel in sheer size and spectacle. Unfortunately, these well-meaning epics are doggedly superficial in terms of meaning and insight. The same goes for his less ambitious works like ``Magic'' and ``A Chorus Line,'' which fail on just about every level.

Although it's built on a somewhat more intimate scale than Attenborough's other historically based films, ``Cry Freedom'' suffers from the same mechanical touch that diminishes their impact. The screenplay aims for compassionate warmth but often seems dry and schematic. Telling a story that brims over with encounters between progressive and repressive forces, Attenborough develops amazingly few gripping or revealing scenes. Neither do he and Mr. Briley shed any new light on the subject of liberal vs. radical approaches to apartheid, which they touch on but never penetrate.

The movie's performances fall short, too, despite their clear sincerity. As the newly enlightened editor, Kevin Kline is ultimately defeated by the directing and scripting of the film, which lock him into scene after scene of listening to Biko and other blacks with a rapt expression on his face. Denzel Washington is a capable actor with a potentially bright future, but he doesn't evoke the Biko described by Attenborough in his production notes - a speaker and leader who, by politician or movie-star standards, ``was in the broadest sense beyond compare....''

Perhaps the worst miscalculation in planning ``Cry Freedom'' was the decision to place Biko's death at about the midpoint of the picture, followed by a lengthy depiction of Woods's escape from South Africa with his illicit manuscript.

Early in the film, Biko persuasively argues that black people must make their own progress - not depend on help from white liberals - if they are to achieve permanent dignity and freedom. This being so, why does the film itself keep storming on after the demise of its main black character, shifting the audience's attention to the kind of white derring-do we find in garden-variety Hollywood pictures?

To be fair, Attenborough eventually starts intercutting Woods's escape with searing views of the infamous Soweto massacre, returning the movie's focus to the kind of black misery that spurred Biko's career (and presumably this film) in the first place. It's also true that Woods and his family underwent deep suffering of their own - as is illustrated by one of the movie's partly effective dramatic scenes, wherein Woods's children are victims of a sadistic attack by white bigots.

The fact remains that ``Cry Freedom'' never satisfactorily engages the complexity of South Africa's human rights tragedy; and this failure stems partly from the film's embrace of Hollywood formulas that place white heroics firmly in the place of honor.

This ploy may result in more people ultimately seeing the movie, including more white people who need to be reminded of the sad realities it reflects. But the story they'll encounter is not as powerful or revealing as it might have been if Stephen Biko had been its true protagonist.

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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