Some films are perfect products of their time; other films are such that they transcend their time; and then others are simply lost in time, flailing about in search of a focus and desperately needing something, anything, to root them in a particular place.
Unfortunately, Cry, the Beloved Country, the latest film version of Alan Paton's classic novel of the races in South Africa, falls into the last category. The first major movie to be produced in South Africa since apartheid was dismantled, Cry, the Beloved Country was apparently meant to celebrate the newly democratic nation and be a monument to what is possible there. (Producer Anant Singh acquired the rights to the novel more than five years ago, but says he refused to go ahead with his movie until free elections were a reality in his homeland.) That makes a certain sense: Paton's story is about forgiveness and reconciliation, two things the troubled country could use. But while the demise of apartheid was a blessing for South Africa, it created a problem for the movie.
Part of what made Paton's novel so gripping was its context. Though it's set before the South African elections of 1948, in which the Nationalist Party took power and coalesced a series of discriminatory laws into the iron policy of apartheid, race is at its core. The story of two fathers and their two sons, and how their lives tragically intertwine, is given resonance not just because one father is white and the other black; it's given resonance because behind their individual meetings is a whole sea of racial struggle.
In the new Cry, the Beloved Country, that sea has all but dried up, leaving us the basic story of families in conflict and, curiously enough, a good rural life versus bad city life message. It may be that the filmmakers thought that to emphasize the racial background would be to belabor the obvious; it may be that they wanted to make clearer the story of the two fathers (and, to their credit, they do reveal some important religious elements that earlier screen versions ignored). But whatever the reason, their Country is still too cut off from the land that created it.
Not that there isn't anything to admire here. Toward the end of the film, we have a pair of moving and powerful scenes. Two men, a black and a white South African, have lost their sons, and are too old to have much interest in the future, and yet we see them not sinking into mourning, but seeking peace and a better future. The black father, the Reverend Stephen Kumalo (James Earl Jones), kneels alone in a savage wilderness. "I don't personally believe," Jones has said about his character, "that you can pray someone into Heaven, but Kumalo is trying." He is trying to pray his lost son into Heaven, and this scene is a beautiful thing -- Kumalo in his stark black suit and collar, alone on a high hill, looking for solace in his God and his homeland.
Before Kumalo's trek, he met with the other father. The white father, James Jarvis (Richard Harris), had read his dead son's liberal writings and had changed his rightist views, deciding to make a noble gesture in his son's name. He visits Kumalo during a rain storm, and in Kumalo's leaky church, Jarvis offers to pay for a new building -- if one stone might have his son's name on it. This moment, too, is grand and moving. The fierce pride of Kumalo in his rustic chapel, the blue of the church's peeling paint against the silvery rain and the meek hope of a wealthy man are a composition that few can view dry-eyed.
Still, while these earnest moments, and many others, have emotional power, the film ends up a collage of emotional moments, and trades too heavily on the built-in appeal of its subject matter. The heart-wrenching scenes are dropped in too much like heart-wrenching public service announcements during a late-night movie. The gravity of the subject matter and the strength of some images and the acting work to lift Country out of kitsch range, but the movie nonetheless lacks focus, is not a whole.
The film does capture the awe-inspiring grandeur of the South African mountain country, and its version of Sophiatown, a raw boomtown, is vibrant and wild. And in the beginning we get at least a hint of how things are in this land: a little girl, running through the fields with a letter in her hand, seems intent on delivering her missive until a white man rides by. As he passes, she stops and waits fearfully. Here, the sense of history and culture that has resulted in such a reaction is easy to read.
The letter the girl carries summons the Reverend Kumalo from his peaceful home. His sister, Gertrude (Dambisa Kente), like his son Absalom (Eric Miyeni), has vanished into the roiling city, and the pious country man must go there to save them.
In town, Kumalo is an odd duck. The sight of this lumbering, patient man -- and his confusion and fear -- struggling to save his family from the temptations that have overwhelmed them speaks volumes. In fact, Kumalo's efforts to find his sister and his son say too much about youths lost in the flight to the city. The scenes about drugs and crime in the wicked urban center -- and these scenes are a large part of the movie -- are too much about Kumalo and his family, not Kumalo, his family, his country and his race. There is too little about the white-run culture that created the world in which Kumalo's family has been lost. And because these scenes are among the film's most powerful, they overwhelm the broader issues behind them.
Race issues similarly fail to appear when Kumalo discovers that his sister has become a prostitute; they don't appear when he learns that Absalom has a pregnant girlfriend. Race becomes an issue only when he learns that his son is accused of murdering a white man during a robbery, and even then the racial issues seem ancillary. Granted, one could go too far in this direction and end up with a tract, but easing off the issue completely isn't the answer. And too often, the issue that has been at the center of much South African history simply disappears.
James Earl Jones is another part of the problem. Yes, his patient, devout Kumalo is a compelling character. And yes, Jones' work and the parts of the script that uphold Paton's piety are among the film's strongest elements. Previous adaptations have backed off on the religious themes, while more than the first half of this film is devoted to establishing Kumalo as a man of God. But this is not all for the best. As watchable, and often evocative, as Jones' Kumalo is, much of the time spent with this character would have been better spent with a look at South African society.
We get to race relations only when Kumalo, the father of a killer, and Jarvis, the father of the killer's victim, meet. At this point, which comes suddenly at the end of the story, we see two men who were worlds apart -- separated by class, culture and race -- come to see one truth. But the connection between these men isn't satisfying in the context of the plot; it's satisfying only because we're all so smug about the end of apartheid.
Cry, the Beloved Country has beauty, and the talents of many fine actors, and its good looks and good intentions will probably be enough for most people. It seems almost churlish to ask for more. But the sad truth is that more was there for the taking. If you want to celebrate the end of apartheid, go ahead and buy a ticket. But if you want a movie that, as the novel did, examines how people who share the same land can become enemies, and what might be done to heal such a split, then this Cry, the Beloved Country won't do.
Cry, the Beloved Country.
Directed by Darrell James Roodt. With James Earl Jones and Richard Harris.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.