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Cry, the Beloved Country (1951)
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Cry, the Beloved Country (1951)

Cry, the Beloved Country (1951) deals head-on with the evils of South Africa's apartheid system, which gave the full force of law to white supremacy and ruthless subordination of the country's black majority until it was finally dismantled in the 1990s. The screenplay is by Alan Paton, based on the eponymous novel he wrote in 1946, the year of a strike for higher wages that caused the death or injury of more than 1,000 black workers. Paton's book was published two years later, just as apartheid was being officially imposed; not surprisingly, South Africa's government banned it. The film adaptation debuted early in 1952, the year when new "pass laws" were instituted – crippling black people's freedom of movement more severely than ever – and when the anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela and a partner opened the country's first black legal firm, an early occurrence in the long struggle that finally ended apartheid some four decades later.

The movie's main characters are Stephen Kumalo, a black clergyman in rural South Africa, and James Jarvis, a white farmer whose land is in the same part of the country, although the two men have never met. The story begins when Stephen visits Johannesburg for the first time, hoping to find out what's become of Gertrude, his sister, and Absalom, his biblically named son. Arriving in the big city and learning from a young priest named Msimangu that Gertrude has become a prostitute, Stephen sets off to rescue her from the miserable slum where she leads her unhappy life. In the meanwhile, we see that Absalom's situation is even worse – he's become a criminal, and during a burglary he shoots and kills Arthur Jarvis, a white liberal who has worked to establish better housing for the country's poor black laborers. Arthur is the idealistic son of James Jarvis, and in one of the film's grim ironies, we've seen the racially unenlightened James grumbling about a newspaper photo of Arthur shaking hands with a black man to celebrate advances in his housing program. Now another black man has ended Arthur's life.

This tragic event has at least one positive consequence. Traveling to the city as soon as he receives the awful news, James spends a great deal of time reading through his son's papers, coming to understand and sympathize with his compassion for the country's black population; later, at Arthur's funeral, he shakes hands with many black people, the very thing he complained about Arthur doing before Arthur's papers helped him see the light. The story ends on the evening before Absalom's execution for the murder, when Stephen and James have a conversation that holds out promise for future progress in South African racial understanding. Other characters include Stephen's brother John, a black militant, and his nephew Matthew, who was Absalom's accomplice in the crime; James's wife, Margaret, whose ill health is further shaken by the trauma of Arthur's death; Martens, a probation officer who's strongly interested in the murder case; and Father Vincent, a priest who runs a mission in Johannesburg.

The picture was directed by Zoltan Korda, who belonged to a very cinematic family – his brothers were Vincent Korda, the prominent art director and production designer, and Alexander Korda, a prolific producer-director and founder of London Films, the English studio where Cry, the Beloved Country was produced. According to a memoir by Michael Korda, his nephew, Zoltan's health was weakening in the early 1950s but he was determined to make this film, which might possibly be his last, as honest and uncompromising as possible, no matter how much its anti-establishment message might offend the British Empire and its South African avatars. Much of it was filmed in South Africa in the thick of the apartheid era; costar Sidney Poitier, who plays Msimangu, says in his autobiographyThis Life that he and Canada Lee, who plays Stephen Kumalo, entered the country claiming to be "indentured laborers," not actors which would have aroused suspicion. Once they were there, they had to cope with official racism so severe that as black people they'd be breaking the law if they so much as drank a drop of alcohol.

Before going to South Africa for Cry, the Beloved Country, Poitier hadn't dreamed that dignified Great Britain could harbor the kind of lethal bigotry he encountered. Hearing about it in depth from contacts he made there on the sly, "in a real cloak-and-dagger manner," was quite a political and cultural eye-opener for him. Yet he found great fulfillment in the role of Msimangu, who had a "compassion and fighting spirit" that made him the most "artistically exciting" character he'd played so far in his career. He also appreciated the insights regarding "social characteristics and other subtleties of character" provided to him by Paton, who was present during much of the filming. And he was very pleased to act alongside Lee, a former prizefighter who acted in a handful of films – he's best remembered for Lifeboat in 1944 and Body and Soul in 1947 – before his civil-rights work of the 1930s and 1940s earned him a place on Hollywood's blacklist during the infamous red-scare period. He died of blood poisoning a few months after Cry, the Beloved Country had its American premiere. Actor and activist Ossie Davis later hailed him as "a new kind of black man, aggressive, proud and dangerous."

Alexander Korda had been a left-wing activist in his native Hungary, but he became a conservative fan of the British Empire after moving to England in the 1930s. Between 1935 and 1939 he and his brothers worked together on the Empire quartet, four novel-based movies that celebrated the so-called white man's burden in various British colonies. By contrast, Zoltan Korda was a committed liberal who developed a keen respect for Africa when he traveled there to do research for Sanders of the River (1935), the first of those films. He saw Cry, the Beloved Country as a chance to express his admiration for African culture in undiluted form. Although he was gratified when it won the Bronze Bear at the Berlin film festival and played at Cannes as an official selection, he was bitterly let down when its American distributor (Lopert Pictures) reedited it to tone down its message and changed its title to the sensationalistic African Fury. This was a disappointing fate for what Michael Korda describes as "certainly his finest film, and the one he most cared about."

Paton's novel has also been the basis for other works, including Lost in the Stars, a 1949 stage musical by playwright Maxwell Anderson and composer Kurt Weill; a 1974 film version of Lost in the Stars directed by Daniel Mann; and a 1995 remake of Cry, the Beloved Country directed by South African filmmaker Darrell Roodt and featuring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris as the black and white protagonists. I was at the New York premiere of the 1995 picture, which was introduced by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who praised its commitment to human rights, and South African President Mandela, who called it a "monument to the future," stressing its value not so much as a record of the past than as a guide to continued progress in time to come. The same can be said of Korda's film today.

Director: Zoltan Korda
Producer: Zoltan Korda, Alan Paton
Screenplay: Alan Paton, adapted from his novel
Cinematographer: Robert Krasker
Film Editing: David Eady
Art Direction: Wilfred Shingleton
With: Canada Lee (Stephen Kumalo), Charles Carson (James Jarvis), Sidney Poitier (Reverend Msimangu), Joyce Carey (Margaret Jarvis), Geoffrey Keen (Father Vincent), Vivien Clinton (Mary), Michael Goodliffe (Martens), Albertina Temba (Mrs. Kumalo), Edric Connor (John Kumalo), Lionel Ngakane (Absalom Kumalo), Charles McRae (Stephen's friend), Bruce Meredith Smith (Captain Jaarsveldt), Bruce Anderson (Frank Smith), Ribbon Dhlamini (Gertrude)
BW-103m.

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