March 11, 2019  (Web Review)

A Dry White Season

Criterion, 106 min., R, DVD: $29.99, Blu-ray: $39.99

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

Euzhan Palcy’s 1989 film, based on a 1979 novel by André Brink, was among the first to dramatize the injustice and brutality of South Africa’s apartheid system for international audiences, and it retains its power after nearly three decades. Donald Sutherland is Ben Du Toit, a history teacher at an all-white Johannesburg prep school where his son is a student. When his trusted gardener Gordon’s son is swept up in a protest demonstration and dies in police custody and Gordon himself is tortured to death after trying to secure the boy’s body, Du Toit is shocked into understanding the cruelty of the system that he has taken for granted. He allies with an African lawyer (Zakes Mokae) and a crusading reporter (Susan Sarandon) to unmask the vicious racism of the security forces headed by pitiless Captain Stolz (Jürgen Prochnow) while also enlisting principled lawyer Ian McKenzie (Marlon Brando, whose flamboyant performance was nominated for an Oscar) to expose the government’s lies in court. McKenzie succeeds, in a supremely sarcastic set of examinations, but loses the case anyway in what he knows is a preordained decision. Still Ben soldiers on, losing the support even of his wife and daughter until only his young son encourages him to continue the fight despite the threat to the family. There is more than a whiff of To Kill a Mockingbird here, and the ending is a mite pat, but A Dry White Season remains a potent portrait of the cruelty of apartheid. This digitally restored Criterion release features extras including interviews with Palcy, a 1989 Today Show interview with Sutherland, an excerpt from Palcy’s 1995 interview with Nelson Mandela, footage of a 2017 ceremony in which Palcy was honored by the South African government, and an illustrated insert with an essay by filmmaker Jyoti Mistry. Highly recommended. (F. Swietek)