`CRY FREEDOM'' is a thrilling new movie on South Africa by Sir Richard Attenborough, the veteran filmmaker. It tells the story of how Steve Bantu Biko, a young, gifted, black - and patriotic - South African student leader, died tragically in the hands of people who have claimed to be the custodians of civilization in their part of the world. The movie is also about a strange relationship between Steve - a fervent advocate of the philosophy of ``black consciousness,'' whose militancy rejects any form of cooperation between white and black in the struggle against apartheid - and a white liberal newspaper editor, Donald Woods, who ends up scooping the world about the circumstances leading to his friend's death.
From beginning to end, ``Cry Freedom'' holds the audience in a great spell. But it still leaves the same old question people overseas will continue to ask in complete disgust and disbelief: ``Is it really true?''
Yes, it is all very true: so true that the filmmakers have had to adjust the story to the comfort of audiences outside South Africa, whose understanding of how things ought to be is so different from the concepts of the people who rule South Africa, and even the millions who are the victims of that system.
As a black South African who has had a taste of what Biko went through, I could understand the controversy sparked off by ``Cry Freedom.'' The story has been edited to a point of doing some injustice to Biko and what he stood for. Its major focus, moreover, is not Biko, but Donald Woods (as played, quite brilliantly, by American actor Kevin Kline).
The producer's argument that he could not find a black South African to portray Biko may sound to some of us very much like the arguments the authors of apartheid often come up with to justify shutting black people out of the mainstream.
Choosing Denzel Washington, a good actor no doubt, to play Biko is to reduce Biko to a mere black civil rights liberal, which he was not.
Mr. Washington could portray Biko, but he could not be Biko, because he has not lived under apartheid. His grasp of that system can only be academic and detached. This was the same point Biko and the black-consciousness movement made about white liberals involved in the struggle to build a nonracist South Africa.
The brutality of the South African police and Army is vividly depicted in the shootings of the schoolchildren who took to the streets on June 16, 1976, to protest against ``Bantu education'' and the use of Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch descendants, as a medium of instruction in black schools.
As police descend with their bulldozers to demolish an ``illegal'' settlement meant to depict ``Crossroads'' in Cape Town, somewhere on the walls of the shanties coming down are posters of the black people's leaders: Steve Biko himself; Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress, who has languished in prison since 1962; and Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the late leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress, who led the campaign culminating in the Langa and Sharpeville massacres of March 21, 1960, and ended up spending 18 years in prison and banishment, where he died on Feb. 27, 1978.
It is this brutality, the seemingly incorrigible character of the South African government, and its stubborn refusal to end apartheid which have prompted people of conscience throughout the world to demand punitive measures against South Africa in the form of economic, diplomatic, and cultural sanctions against that regime as a peaceful alternative to the resolve of the South African liberation movements to apply a ``tooth-for-a-tooth'' solution to the problem, with violence and armed struggle.
But the hypocrisy displayed by South Africa's major Western trading partners, who harp on peaceful solutions yet do everything in their power to frustrate economic sanctions, for instance, is not going to persuade victims of apartheid to turn the other cheek.
The ongoing violence in that country has already resulted in the loss of well over 15,000 blacks in the past decade.
Yet President Reagan remains opposed to even limited economic sanctions, whose ineffectiveness has been due largely to the fact that they were limited and that his administration has remained opposed to them.
Black South Africans who come to the United States with all kinds of illusions about democracy and freedom soon find themselves disillusioned to discover that some form of apartheid exists even here.
They are even shocked to discover that there are thousands upon thousands of people who have to sleep on the subways and in the parks because they have no other place to live. Then they conclude that South Africa has no monopoly on racism; it is a worldwide problem.
It is in this context that the problem of apartheid in South Africa should be seen.
``Cry Freedom'' is, despite its flaws, one of the best films to be produced on South Africa and the questions of human rights, freedom, and democracy.
It is also a warning even to those people trying to mobilize the American public against apartheid to reexamine their approaches, particularly their tendency to support one political group in South Africa to the exclusion of others.
The people of South Africa crying for freedom contend that this is another form of apartheid which, when apartheid goes, will lead to the civil strife we see today in other independent black states.
With this appreciation of ``Cry Freedom,'' Americans will no doubt get the real message Sir Richard meant to convey.
Mxolisi Mgxashe is a journalist serving as an intern in the Monitor's New York bureau.