Cry Freedom [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - Australia - Umbrella Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (10th March 2019).
The Film

"Cry Freedom" (1987)

Donald Woods (played by Kevin Kline) is a journalist and the editor in chief at South Africa's Daily Dispatch, and also a family man raising his five children with his wife Wendy (played by Penelope Wilton). While critical of the Apartheid white run government, the paper has also been critical of the Black Power movement which has come under scrutiny from black readers, as Woods and other white are not being truthful in their writing. It leads Woods to meeting with Steve Biko (played by Denzel Washington), a black activist who is currently labeled as "banned" by the government. He is not allowed to socialize with more than one person other than his family, is restricted from where to go, and is consistently under surveillance.

Woods and Biko share their thoughts for South Africa's future, about the Black Power movement, and finding trust in the divide, as Woods sees the harshness that the blacks survive in compared to his well off life. But Biko is willing to take illegal chances for a better future, by giving speeches at soccer games, bringing work, education, and medical assistance to the needy, and the police and the government are not happy with his actions, bringing tragic outcomes...

Based on the books "Biko" and "Asking for Trouble" written by Donald Woods on Steve Biko's life and the Black Power movement during Apartheid, this 1987 biopic was a faithful adaptation of the events that happened from 1975 to 1978, during the time that Woods befriended Biko to Woods' escape and exile in London to expose the truth. The oppressive government of South Africa at the time was heavily covering up their oppressive nature and mentions of revolutionary movements by the blacks of the country, and how their impoverished lives were in comparison to the whites of the country. For the production of the feature film, the real Donald and Wendy Woods were heavily involved with the production for authenticity and additional information. Directed by Richard Attenborough who previously shot the Oscar winning biopic "Gandhi" in 1983, it seemed like a perfect fit for the director as it tread on some similar themes - a country where the masses were oppressed by a white government and a leader of a revolutionary movement who became a martyr. It should be no surprise that the real Steve Biko was killed while in prison in 1977 at the age of 30, in which the film does depict the brutal events and the government cover-up trying to say that his death was due to a hunger strike rather than severe beatings. The film does not shy away from the violence or the frustrations of the people. The opening scene has a police raid on suspected immigrant workers, there is a scene of a brutal police massacre involving children being gunned down and many more being injured, oppressive government tactics, while also addressing the viewpoints of the white liberals as seen with the Woods family's lives. Shot mostly in Zimbabwe as it would have been impossible to shoot in South Africa due to the Apartheid government still being in power.

The film does an excellent job of telling the story of the men, the racial divide, and the absurdity of racism and Apatheid fairly intelligently, though there are some slight imperfections along the way. The family life of Woods with his children is there, though each child is not given much time for characterization or for family dynamic, being mostly background characters. Biko's death in the film should have signaled a near end, but the scenes following involving Woods' uncovering of the falsified reason of his death, the decision to write a book, the physical harassment experienced by his family, and the daunting escape from the country were quite long - possibly too long. Granted the latter portion of the film following Biko's death were actually rather excellent. The escape was filled with emotion rather than relying on falsified chases, and the scene of him saying goodbye to his family were incredibly touching. The issue was that it seemed like a different film altogether. Only when the inserted massacre scene of the Soweto uprising is inserted that the audience is reminded of why he was running, and what the film was about. At a lengthy runtime of nearly 2 hours 40 minutes, including additional scenes to flesh out the first half could have been counterproductive, though it would have been interesting to see the characters and relationships fleshed out more. There was a television version when broadcast had extra scenes to lengthen the film as a two part film. The information on what these additional scenes comprised of, I could not find.

"Gandhi" was seen through the eyes of the title character, but "Cry Freedom" is more or less seen through the eyes of the white journalist and how his vision of South Africa changes through the years. While his life seemed wonderful raising his children in a fine environment near the beach, with a dog, a live-in maid, and being at a high position at his workplace, the things he took for granted since he was a child. But when he sees how blacks were not receiving basic medical assurance, subpar if no education, and having a large amount of restrictions throughout, his relationship with Biko grows just as much as it does question his role as a journalist. Kevin Kline does an excellent job as Donald Woods with a sense of sincerity and care. Denzel Washington received an Oscar nomination for his role as Biko, even if his South African accent was slightly unconvincing, but was able to bring a subtle nod to how he would later portray another civil rights activist leader, in "Malcolm X" in 1992, in which he would be nominated yet again for an Oscar for his performance. There is concern that the film relies on the "White Savior", the white character that is pivotal in the movement of storyline, this is in fact based on Woods' writings and is the main character in the storyline. Yes, it might be made more for "white eyes" rather than focusing on Biko's point of view, it truly was a cry for the world to see, and sad to say the view from an "outsider", in this case the white South African journalist, is an easier way to pull in investors and also get international audiences in seats. For the direction, Attenborough does an admirable job, using crowd scenes of thousands such as in the funeral scene and in the massacre scene, while also giving time and place for more intimate scenes that can shed some tears with the characters. It's a beautifully shot film with the African vistas and seasides, shot by cinematographer Ronnie Taylor who also lensed "Gandhi".

"Cry Freedom" was a huge gamble for Universal Pictures with a fairly large budget of $29 million mostly shot on location in Africa and being controversially critical towards an oppressive government still in power. The film was released on November 6, 1987 in the United States in a limited run, with its widest release in only 479 screens. Financially it was not a success, grossing only $5.9 million. As for critics it was fairly positive but there were some reservations with the latter escape portion and relying too much on Kline's character rather than Washington's. It received four Golden Globe nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, three Oscar nominations, and also a Grammy nomination for best song for "Cry Freedom", though it won none. Over the years and with the crumbling of the Apartheid government in South Africa, the film has been strangely forgotten over the years. It was released on DVD by Universal but given a dated non-anamorphic transfer and a paltry selection of extras back in 1999. Now twenty years after the DVD, 32 years after the film, and 42 years since Biko's death the film is finally given the Blu-ray treatment from Umbrella Entertainment in Australia.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray

Video

Umbrella Entertainment presents the film in the theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio, in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The opening credits shows a bit of instability in the text and the frame, but it improves very quickly. The HD transfer shows off good colors, depth, and detail throughout, and has been cleaned leaving little damage such as specs and dust, but on minor occasions still can be seen if looked closely. Film grain is intact and there is no sign of digital enhancement giving a natural film like appearance. Overall a very good transfer for the film, and obviously a major step up from the old non-anamorphic DVD editions. There was an anamorphic DVD from Germany from years ago, but had a slightly cropped transfer also not making it ideal.

The film's runtime is 157:35.

Audio

English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
Originally released in cinemas with a 6 channel surround track with 70mm showings, the Blu-ray uses the Dolby Stereo mix from the 35mm showings, with a lossless 2.0 stereo track. The stereo separation is very good with music and effects especially in crowded scenes, while dialogue scenes are always well balanced in accordance. It would have been nicer to have a 5.1 track on the release but the 2.0 is a very pleasing one.

There are no subtitles for the film.

Extras

Unfortunately there are no extras on the Blu-ray. There is also no menu, with the film starting when the disc starts and the disc ends when the film ends. Not included is the trailer, which is embedded below.



The previous Universal DVDs had the trailer as an extra, and the US release had some minor text notes as extras. Considering the scope of the film, being a true story, it's unfortunate that no extras could be curated. Documentary on the real Biko and Woods, comments from historians, any behind the scenes information would have been interesting. Attenborough died in 2014 and Woods died in 2001, so it would be impossible for interviews with them, but vintage interviews or historian/family interviews could have been possible.

Packaging

The cover is reversible, with the age rating logo removed on the other side. The case says "region B", but is actually a region ALL Blu-ray.

Overall

"Cry Freedom" is still a fascinating film and shocking to see how recently such things were occurring in South Africa in recent history. Excellent performances and visuals, it might rely too heavily on the "white savior", but is entertaining as it is educational as a film, and finally given a Blu-ray release, thankfully. The Umbrella Entertainment Blu-ray has good audio and video, but unfortunately that it has no extras.

The Film: B+ Video: A- Audio: B+ Extras: F- Overall: C

 


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