Fresh on Criterion: ‘A DRY WHITE SEASON’ a vivid portrait in the pursuit of justice and ending apartheid

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

A DRY WHITE SEASON

Spine #953
Rated R, 106 minutes.
Director: Euzhan Palcy
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Janet Suzman, Zakes Mokae, Jürgen Prochnow, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando and Winston Ntshona

A lack of perspective. As I stared into my computer monitor, fingers hovering over the keyboard, I was at a loss of how I could possibly write a critique on A DRY WHITE SEASON, a film about South Africa apartheid. I’m a 30-something-year-old white male. Who am I to review a film about racial segregation? My lack of perspective about anti-apartheid pushed my train of thought back to the station. I was stuck.

Approaching the review from the apartheid angle foremost was not the most acute. There had to be another way to get the train moving. And then it hit me: 1989, the year we went BACK TO THE FUTURE… again, and where ordering a delicatessen sandwich seemed like the most erotic experience imaginable. 1989 was also the year of Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING and the Morgan Freeman-starring DRIVING MISS DAISY – two films about race, but radically different.

DO THE RIGHT THING opened in theaters at the end of June to some protest. American newspapers printed editorials on how the film could incite riots. Pretty dangerous print journalism making these suggestive leaps of judgment. The release would cement Lee as a major filmmaker and is one of the most important films from the 1980s. DRIVING MISS DAISY is not held with such high regard (and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture). 

So, where does A DRY WHITE SEASON fit? Also released in 1989, it made history. Yet, its historical significance, a footnote then, is amplified today when put into context. Euzhan Palcy, the filmmaker, became the first black woman to direct a Hollywood studio film. The first but not the last. Palcy was a trailblazer. Her debut, SUGAR CANE ALLEY (1983), was encouraged by Francois Truffaut. A DRY WHITE SEASON developed while she was attending the 1984 Sundance Director’s Lab. Palcy was drawn to the Andre Brink novel, which was considered seditious because of how the Afrikaans author condemned the apartheid state. Robert Redford handpicked Palcy for the lab because of her direction of SUGAR CANE ALLEY. Redford wasn’t Palcy’s only ally for her next project. The venerable thespian Marlon Brando, who had given up showbiz for social causes, came back from a self-imposed retirement to act in the film.

Being championed by Truffaut, Redford, and Brando – that’s pretty stout. Movies about anti-apartheid became an annual tradition at the end of the 1980s with at least one production a year. A DRY WHITE SEASON is different because of its voice. Palcy trumpets the cause for change by looking beyond the conflict of segregation and exposes the fallacies of law and true justice. Set in 1976, it was during this period where children attending black schools challenged the state requirement to be instructed in the Afrikaans language as well as the quality of education received. Street protests, walkouts, rising hostility. Children were assaulted, arrested, even murdered at the hands of the law.

Stanley (Zakes Mokae, left), a local taxi driver, becomes a friends and confidant to Ben du Toit (Donald Sutherland), a schoolteacher whose life is torn apart when he becomes involved in an investigation into the death of his gardener and the man’s young son in ‘A DRY WHITE SEASON.’ Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn Mayor Pictures, Inc.

Ben du Toit (Donald Sutherland) makes a comfortable living as a schoolteacher. He has a loving family and has a friendly relationship with the house gardener Gordon Ngubene (Winston Ntshona). But Ben is ignorant to the injustices toward blacks. Nothing more than a clerical error or misfiled paperwork, Ben presumes, after Gordon’s son goes missing after a Soweto student protest. When Gordon goes to look for his son and is tortured and murdered at the hands of the state Ben begins to wake up.

Because he continues to seek justice for Gordon he becomes a victim. He is harassed by police. His wife leaves him. He loses his job. Ben goes from educator to becoming educated.

Ben du Toit serves as the white audience surrogate, drawing them in to demonstrate how one’s comfortable existence makes them ignorant to what is really going on. When he can no longer stay oblivious to savage violence and brutality he makes a stand to do the right thing.

Sadly, law and justice in South Africa are not one and the same, as Marlon Brando espouses as lawyer Ian McKenzie. “They’re simply not on speaking terms at all.”

There’s another character, Stanley (Zakes Mokae), who shows the harsh certainties of living with dark skin. As a taxi driver that has been helping Ben in his pursuit, Stanley reaffirms the deprivation and dangers of living in black townships far removed from white suburban life.

More than a quarter century after its release, A DRY WHITE SEASON remains a vivid portrait in the pursuit of justice and ending apartheid. Because of her strong-willed determination in creating a film that openly exposed racial inequality in South Africa that was still constant, echoing TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (set in 1930s Alabama but released during the height of the Civil Rights movement), Euzhan Palacy took risks in ensuring that the injustices would affect social and political change.

She succeeded. 

A DRY WHITE SEASON makes its Blu-ray disc debut courtesy of the Criterion Collection. The 30-year-old film comes with a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed stereo soundtrack. Extras include a long-form interview with Euzhan Palcy and film critic Scott Foundras; Five Scenes, a 30-minute program with Palcy; a 1989 interview with Donald Sutherland; an excerpt from a 1995 interview with Palcy and Nelson Mandela; footage of Palcy receiving the highest distinction for foreign dignitaries at the 2017 South African national Orders awards; and “Justice Against the Law,” an essay by filmmaker and scholar Jyoti Mistry.

Grade: B

A DRY WHITE SEASON is now available on Blu-ray and DVD through the Criterion.com.

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