Page 9


BOOKS & THE CULTURE A Black River in a White Season BY MICHAEL KING A DRY WHITE SEASON Written by Euzhan Palcy and Colin Welland Directed by Euzhan Palcy PERHAPS THE MOST remarkable aspect of A Dry White Season is that it makes South Africa seem a very attractive place not, of course, for the usual tourist’s reasons, but because it gives an extraordinary feel for the determination, heroism, and resilience of the African people, especially the children. It may be telling that the director is a black woman, although Palcy is from Martinique, and the film is based upon a novel by the Afrikaaner Andre Brink. The central figure is also an Afrikaaner, Benjamin Du Toit’s he seems almost a stand-in for a white, Western audience. The real action is on the margins, among the black families and protesting crowds, and with the relentless black underground of cabdrivers, cleaning ladies, janitors, and prisoners. A mighty black river runs through the film, and the white men only seem to ride it. They do not know its source, and they Cannot imagine where it will take them. Du Toit is prep-school history teacher \(early on, we watch part of a class on “The apparently apolitical liberal who has underwritten the education of his black gardener’s young son, Jonathan. But the young students are getting caught up in planned and accidental demonstrations; one day Jonathan comes home badly wounded from a police caning. Du Toit is stunned, but can only mutter “he must have done something wrong” when the boy’s father Gordon with the authorities on his boy’s behalf. The demonstrations continue, and when Jonathan disappears in police custody, Du Toit is certain there has been some mistake. He makes a few phone calls hoping to set things right and discovers that the boy is dead. Michael King is a freelance writer living in Houston. “Nothing can be done,” he tells Gordon, but Gordon is inconsolable. He begins to gather evidence of his boy’s murder by the police and soon he too, meets the same fate: torture and death. The film moves quickly to this pass. Gordon’s world is destroyed before it begins to sink in to Du Toit that in South Africa, things really are what they seem. His whole life, and that of his family, rests on a classand race-bound system that is readily apparent to its victims, and to most outsiders. To the Du Toit family his wife, daughter, and in-laws are embarrassed and angry that he even acknowledges his gardener’s existence it is as invisible as air. Palcy is reticent in her approach to this gaping schism in consciousness; she handles it mostly by quick contrasts between the households of master and servants, and an instinctive sense of the moment when the illusory white surface must be shattered by impudent black reality. Du Toit hires a civil rights attorney, Ian McKenzie, to sue the government on behalf of the dead man. As McKenzie, Marlon Brando brings some cynical levity to the proceedings, brushing off Du Toit’s plea for justice with the jaded air of one who has been there too many times before. “Law and justice,” he says, “are at best distant cousins and in South Africa, they’re barely on speaking terms.” But he agrees to take the case, if only to demonstrate to Du Toit the futility of his earnest belief in Afrikaaner justice. As he predicts, despite strong evidence of brutality on the part of the police, the judge dismisses the charges against the Special Branch. Brando’s part is relatively small, and he uses a stage Scots accent that he last employed as the evil regulator in The Missouri Breaks. Snorting with idiosyncratic congestion, he stops just short of carrying the character over into farce, with the result that his courtroom scenes are all the more dramatic in their revelation of police malevolence and brazen judicial corruption. Even Brando is overshadowed by the outraged murmur in the black galleries behind him, and by the black prisoner who suddenly refuses to testify for the police, though he knows it means his own death. THE COURT case is the turning point for Du Toit, who finally has seen clearly the real face of his country. It is a terrible knowledge that shatters his family only his young son, Jonathan’s age, stands by him and ends his comfortable middle-class existence. I have not read Brink’s novel, but my guess is that its central preoccupation is the tragedy of the good Afrikaaner, the white man whose defiance of the system of racial dominance ends in his own downfall. That is still the central story of the film; but in Palcy’s version, the white man’s tragic fate is only one of many similar sacrifices, most of them black, and all are subsumed in the larger fate of a whole people. Du Toit begins to aid the black underground in collecting affidavits and evidence of the crimes of the Special Branch, knowing that it was this activity that ended in the murder of his friend by the authorities. His skin color brings him some protection; he is threatened and harassed, at first, rather than murdered outright. This bit of breathing room allows him time to maneuver, and gives the filmmakers the opportunity to develop a portrait of the African underground. What we see is less an organized conspiracy than a ragtag collection of reluctant opportunists, brought together by circumstances of oppression. The disciplined activists, few in number, swim in a sea of ordinary working people, who are the eyes and ears of the struggle against apartheid. For the white machine requires endless numbers of “kaffirs” to do the heavy work in the hospitals, the jails, the morgues, even the torture chambers and what they see and hear becomes the only ammunition of the resistance. “There is a line you must not cross,” Du Toit is warned by one of his pursuers from the Special Branch, and once the white man has begun cooperating with the underground, the film assumes a kind of inevitability that is compelling without being predictable. Du Toit’s wife and daughter turn on him; Janet Suzman is particularly effective in portraying an Afrikaaner who, faced with the same evidence as her husband, turns in the opposite direction: “Maybe terrible things have been done. But THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17