Cry, The Beloved Country – Directed by Darrell Roodt. High Tragedy. A country priest travels to Johannesburg to find his lost son. 106 minutes Color 1995.
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On a list of the most influential books of the 20th Century, Cry, The Beloved Country might come first. Because, for non-South Africans, it spread out, over the landscape of a prose that in its power and beauty stood in for the land itself, a threefold world pain. And that pain is, one, the pain of a father whose son has been shot to death in a robbery, two, the pain of the father whose son has shot him, and three, our pain which we recognize is the same pain as theirs just as they come to recognize it. The fortunate importance of this concurrence made the book a worldwide best seller, and brought into operation the necessity of amnesty in South Africa when apartheid eventually ended many years later. For, of course, apartheid is the desolating cause. As he makes his way through the slums of Johannesburg, the poor Black minister, whose son has shot the son of the White landholder, becomes educated about the latitude of the harm of apartheid when he sees the poverty and degradation that the suppression of the Black population has brought about. And the father of the murdered boy learns the same. Here, in Johannesburg, there is no beautiful country. For one of the great values of this movie is our vision of the ravishing landscape of South Africa filmed by Paul Gilpin. It is like a prayer. A 1951 Black and White version of this story had Sidney Poitier as the priest-guide, Charles Carson as the White man, and Canada Lee as the Black minister. At that time apartheid was in force, and in order for Poitier and Lee to be allowed to enter South Africa and to be permitted to associate with the White film director, the authorities had to be told that Lee and Poitier were his indentured servants. The present film has Vusi Kunene, wonderful as the priest psychopomp, James Earle Jones as the poor country priest, and Richard Harris as the landowner. Charles S. Dutton plays the political radical brother of Jones. James Earle Jones plays the priest as a good man wounded by greater and greater difficulty as he stumbles into each of them. Richard Harris, as the White landowner father of the murdered boy, is shot through and shot through again, and then again. After the murder, his life changes when he sees the noble work his dead son did for the Blacks, and he wakes up. “What if when the White man turns to love, the Black man turns to hate?” his son has written. But it is not the Black’s forgiveness of the wrong done to him, but the White man’s forgiveness that speeds the truth home that, just as pain is, forgiveness is panhuman and is the beloved ground on which everything may be rebuilt. In that fact lies the power and influence of this book, from which both our awareness of apartheid everywhere and the amnesty at the end of apartheid came to be. Apartheid has not ended in America. This film may still help end it. See it. You may think this film will make you sad. I know it will. But see it. It will also make you alive.