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CLEANING UP SOUTH AFRICA

The relief and joy most South Africans feel at the passing of apartheid in their country is everywhere reflected in Darrell James Roodt's new film adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country. Nelson Mandela himself has endorsed it as "a monument to the future." Co-stars James Earl Jones and Richard Harris are saying the classic story of a poor black preacher and a rich white landowner joined by the tragedy of their sons is even more important now than it was when Alan Paton's novel was published in 1948. And the film is stuffed with enough old-fashioned uplift and earnestness to furnish a cathedral or two--just like the 1952 movie version with Sidney Poitier.

Paton, who died three years ago, had impeccable credentials as a humanitarian, including his role as co-founder of the reform-minded Liberal Association of South Africa. But sheer goodness may not be the highest qualification for a novelist, especially if you're a white liberal writing about tragic racial inequities in your homeland. There are 15 million copies of Paton's novel in print (it's long been prescribed in high schools), and in every one of them his admirable idealism goes hand in hand with sappiness--and with the author's seeming reluctance to address the harshest details of black bondage in South Africa.

Roodt's film feels tame, too. James Earl Jones brings all his gravity and emotional weight to bear on the role of the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, the naive country priest whose "bitter journey" to teeming Johannesburg leads him to the discoveries that his wayward sister (Dambisa Kente) is working in a brothel and his estranged son Absalom (Eric Miyeni) has just killed a young white man. Jones, wearing the smudged and shiny black suit of a poor man, is once again a great pleasure to watch, not least for the way he unnerves us. And he provides brilliant contrast to Harris's James Jarvis, the brittle white aristocrat whose son has been killed by Absalom Kumalo. Harris usually has a tendency to chew up scenery, but he's nicely restrained here, as if so respectful of the material that he simply declined to mug. In any event, Jarvis's slow but steady social enlightenment is still drenched in hope and wish-fulfillment: He's remains one highly idealized Afrikaaner.

Roodt, who also directed the far more confrontational Sarafina!, and South African screenwriter/ playwright Ronald Harwood (The Dresser, The Browning Version) have taken a conciliatory tack, they say, because of the huge democratic strides their country has made in the Nineties. But don't the filmmakers have a responsibility to show Nineties audiences, black and white, the cruelties perpetrated by white power in the black townships of the Forties, the atmosphere of hostility and inequity? Aside from one brief police sweep, we see very little of that, and we never quite feel the despair of the blacks or the arrogance of the whites.

Be that as it may, the acting here is uniformly superb: Aside from Jones and Harris, note Charles S. Dutton as the Reverend Kumalo's firebrand brother and Vusi Kunene as the enigmatic clergyman who shows him around the big city. We also get some startling views of the Zulu countryside and the jazzy squalor of black Johannesburg. But for the most part the film reheats Paton's old take on racial harmony, which at the time of these events was pie in the sky.

By the time the Reverend Kumalo climbs the mountain beyond his home to await the bleak fate of his son, you may feel oddly displaced in time--as if the recent liberation of South Africa had somehow altered the realities of half a century earlier. To put it another way, this new Cry, the Beloved Country is admirable, but it pulls its punches.

 
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