A Dry White Season

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Jan 07, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

While researching A Dry White Season, director Euzhan Palcy repeatedly snuck into apartheid-era South Africa disguised as a musician, aided by Dr. Nthato Motlana, Nelson Mandela’s personal physician. In doing so, adapting the novel of the same name became actual life or death, or at least possible imprisonment for Palcy, as she strove for authenticity in a tale of racism and brutal oppression.

The 1989 film tells the story of Ben Du Toit, an affluent white teacher and former rugby star in 1976 South Africa, played by Donald Sutherland. He leads a life of comfort and relative indifference, until police massacre black students during a protest in nearby Soweto. It startles Du Toit awake to apartheid’s reality, and when he learns that police arrested his gardener Gordon’s school-age son, he’s finally forced to confront the injustice.

“There’s nothing to be done,” Du Toit told Gordon days before the protest, when police had beaten the son. “There’s nothing to be done,” Du Toit said again when he learns that police killed the son while in custody after the protest. When Gordon himself disappears into the police interrogation rooms, Du Toit enlists the help of an exhausted and sardonic civil rights attorney played by Marlon Brando. Brando essentially took the job for free on account of Palcy’s passion for the project, ending a nine-year retirement. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the brief role, which could arguable stand for his last great, or even good, performance.

Like Du Toit, Brando’s character Ian McKenzie is largely ineffectual against the regime’s corruption and strong-armed tactics. Before long, a British journalist named Melanie Bruwer, played by Susan Sarandon, succeeds him as Du Toit’s ally. She has less screen time than the character deserves, and the scenes she does share with Du Toit imply flirtation, but the film wisely avoids the romantic subplot the viewer expects. A white love story with apartheid as a backdrop would be intolerable.

A Dry White Season is a brave film, made even more courageous because it was filmed while apartheid was still alive and well in South Africa, unlike many American films dealing with Jim Crow or slavery which have been made from a safe geographic or historical distance. Palcy’s crew and actors, such as Zakes Mokae, made a film they likely believed could make a difference upon release. Mokae, a black South African actor, plays Stanley, a savvy cab driver who smuggles Ben Du Toit in and out of Soweto to collect damning evidence against the police. Mokae likely risked actual life and liberty to co-star in a film that was promptly banned in his home country by the racist government. The remarkable nature of Stanley’s cunning widens the aperture of the film’s main flaw: a lack of focus on the black Africans in a film ostensibly about their persecution. We never spend time with Stanley in his home life, we never ride along with him as a cab driver. When we do see him, he’s often helping to widen Du Toit’s eyes with reports of death and brutality. In the film’s early scenes we glimpse Gordon’s home life before it is destroyed by police. In these Soweto scenes, we see the saturated colors of the students’ green shirts and orange ties, the dirt roads and blue kitchen walls. It’s a credit to Palcy that a modern viewer could easily mistake it for a film made in the ‘70s, rather than the late ‘80s.

A Dry White Season is notable in American film history for another reason that says as much about the U.S. as it does South Africa. It was the first Hollywood studio film directed by a black woman, a full 62 years after the first “talkie” appeared in theatres. Considering that, and as clear as her passion is for the film’s subject, it’s curious that she chose a story with a white protagonist to set the narrative. Fortunately, Palcy stops short of drawing Du Toit as a white savior. So many of his efforts are too little, too late, or completely futile in the face of apartheid’s racist kangaroo courts and Kafkaesque legal reasoning. Following Du Toit does allow Palcy to create a balance between political thriller, when Du Toit is evading the violent and retributive police leadership, and family drama, as Du Toit is abandoned by many of his complacent and racist family members and colleagues.

Palcy shot the film in next-door Zimbabwe. She directs with a documentarian restraint: we witness children playing around burned-out cars in the barren plazas of Soweto, recreated as faithfully as any long-distance film critic could imagine. It’s contrasted by Du Toit’s manicured lawns and tennis whites. Sutherland said in a TV interview that making the film challenged many of his own white liberal ideas about the world. American audiences without a deep knowledge of apartheid might undergo an awakening similar to Du Toit. Was it really that bad, can it be that bad? Palcy reminds us it was, and it can be, often closer than we admit.


Author rating: 8/10

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January 11th 2019

Thank you for sharing! I will look for this album.