Cry, The Beloved Country

It's funny how fiction can sometimes pull itself into the realm of prophecy. The muses conspire to bring a story to life; not on stage or on film, but through the actions of real people caught up in historical circumstance. If someone had asked Alan Paton in 1948, the year the South African wrote Cry, the Beloved Country, whether his countrymen could ever be knitted into one nation, he probably would have laughed. It seemed impossible, or at least improbable, at a time when the Nationalist party was just beginning to construct the despicable matrix of apartheid. But Paton's skepticism didn't stop him from dreaming of a liberated South Africa, nor of writing about one. The result was a story which wraps itself around the lives of two men, one black and one white, neither of whom ever lift their heads above their own circumstances to adjust their sails to the winds of change. But change is inevitable. In the end, Paton convinces us through the lives of these men that apartheid can't last because eventually good people will cease to permit it. As if fulfilling a prophecy, it was President Nelson Mandela, the architect of South Africa's liberation from apartheid in 1994, who recently stood before a New York audience to herald the first American screening of a film based on Paton's novel. (The film opened to South African audiences in October.) The poetry of the moment was not lost on Mandela. "Much of what was portrayed in Cry, The Beloved Country is a monument to the future, as well as a record of South Africa's past," proclaimed Mandela, a man whose dignity and perseverance reminds one of the steadfast character of Kumolo in the book. "Cry, the Beloved Country is a film that for my generation will evoke a bittersweet memory of our youth. Our liberation was costly and painful. But it was our children who bore the brunt of the dislocation wrought by the apartheid government." Producer Anant Singh was only eight years old when Mandela was sentenced to prison for leading a rebellion against the racist South African regime. Singh had read Cry as a schoolboy, and when he embarked upon his filmmaking career, he immediately set out to purchase the two stories that most captured the struggles of his motherland: Sarafina! and Cry, the Beloved Country. In 1992, he produced Sarafina!, the story of the 1976 Soweto uprisings. "But," says Singh, solemn and exhausted at the New York screening, "I vowed not to produce Cry until South Africa had attained democracy." The film's director, Darrell Roodt, agreed with Singh that the time to release such a film is now. "Before the downfall of apartheid, this movie would have to have been more visceral, angry and in-your-face," said the 33-year-old, fair-haired Johannesburg native. "I was able to approach the story with massive hindsight, to look back and shake my head. I wanted to transcend the pain, take it to a new level that has more meaning -- the horror of apartheid has been exceeded. Now the nation is enveloped in a spirit of forgiveness, allowing the film to be more subtle." Or perhaps it's Singh and Roodt who have mellowed along with their nation. The two -- Roodt more clearly of European lineage, and Singh more likely to have been classified as "colored" under apartheid -- have joined forces before in more visceral anti-apartheid films. Together they launched A Place of Weeping, the first anti-apartheid motion picture to be made in South Africa, and the only South African film to play on HB0. In 1992, the two brought Sarafina! to international screens. Starring Whoopi Goldberg, the film was a powerful and emotional look at the courage among the children in Soweto, whose leadership sparked the uprisings of the mid-1970s. It is with the $10 million production of Cry that the director-producer duo takes another less jolting stab at telling the story of apartheid to the rest of the world. And Roodt is right: the film is so subtle that it almost completely ignores the horrors of apartheid in favor of preaching the power of hope. It is perhaps no coincidence that the book has sold more copies in South Africa than any other, save the Bible. The book and the film delve deeply into religious and spiritual themes, ultimately proclaiming the power of redemption. Cry is quiet, slow, lamenting, gorgeous and introspective. It is not, as Roodt put it, "in-your-face." In the film, James Earl Jones plays the steadfast Kumolo, a Zulu Christian priest who finds peace, in spite of apartheid, in the midst of his family, the people in his small village in Natal, and the breathtaking beauty of the surrounding mountains. Yet, one by one, the villagers are disappearing into the moral wasteland of Johannesburg, never to return to the village. His son, his brother and his sister have disappeared, and Kumolo's safe world is crumbling from under him. Only a few miles down the road lives James Jarvis, a white colonialist who has assumed the correctness of the existence of apartheid the way most of us assume air. Jarvis, portrayed in the film by Richard Harris, and Kumolo have spent a lifetime as neighbors, yet they are strangers to each other, remaining invisible behind the cloak of separatism even when their paths cross by chance. Even as they exist unaware and only passively involved in the political degradation around them, fate has conspired to bring them face-to-face. Kumolo receives a letter begging him to come to Johannesburg to rescue his sister who is "sick." (She is actually a prostitute, which Kumolo finds out only after his arrival in the city.) While he is there, he decides to stay to seek out his prodigal son, Absalom. But Kumolo's journey has begun too late. He finds Absalom in prison, indicted in the murder of a young, white, liberal activist: Arthur Jarvis, the son of Kumolo's wealthy neighbor, James Jarvis. From this point on, the two men are lifted out of their insular worlds, and begin to struggle with the same issues the nation itself must face. Kumolo must come to grips with what years of apartheid have done to the moral constitution of his people. He must decide where his anger is best directed- at the victims of apartheid or their oppressors- and decide for himself whether hope is a futile endeavor. Jarvis must accept the consequences of his wealth and power as a colonialist. He begins to realize that through his active participation in apartheid, and his passive acceptance of its consequences, he was the architect of his own child's murder. When the men meet face-to-face, their struggle to come to grips with the actions of their sons enables them to endure each other's company without malice or bitterness. On the day that Abasolm is hanged for the murder, Jarvis visits Kumolo, who has gone up into the mountains surrounding his village. Together, the men reach a quiet peace. Asked how such a sublime film about South Africa will go over with young American film-goers, James Earl Jones, who plays Kumolo in the film, is contemplative. "I worry that young people will not understand this film," he says. "Will the gentleness of Kumolo's character appear as a museum piece?" In order to play Kumolo, Jones had to remain emotionally removed from his own power, he recalls. "(Kumolo) has to take the heroic act of walking into the insanity. He tries to walk in the steps of Jesus, and esteem himself in the city. ...Who knows how strong he is? He takes no heroic action other than to salvage his family. "I had to put it out of my mind that I could never have accepted that kind of oppression." Perhaps not, for when he recounts all of Kumolo's trials, tears actually well in his grey-blue eyes. He takes a moment to collect himself, then relates how he copes with racism even today. "You're only as big as what makes you mad. You can't account for others' insanity and you have to ignore it." Jones' co-star, Richard Harris, plays Jarvis, the wealthy colonialist. Harris, too brings personal experience to the film. Born and raised in Limerick County, Ireland, he connects the story of apartheid with the story of Ireland's struggle for freedom from British rule. Having lived under religious oppression his whole life, he found it easy to slip into the role of a white racist. "I know oppressors well," he says, thumping a package of cigarettes matter-of-factly on the table. Still, Harris says his role pales beneath the majesty of Jones' performance. "I was so worried that no one would believe in Jarvis' transformation in the film," he explains. "How will he make the switch? But it's so biblical: lives being changed by looking into the face of compassion. James Earl Jones had that look. There was no anger. And it works." Perhaps so, but it is ultimately the salvation of Jarvis, not the long suffering of Kumolo, which moves the film from historical marker to timeless allegory. "This isn't a movie about race, it's about redemption," says Jones. "Yes," agrees Harris, "it says that change is possible- and that it is often born of pain." The transformative power of compassion and redemption are clearly what both the author of Cry, the Beloved Country and the film's producers wish audiences to walk away with when they see the movie in January. It's a theme that resonates worldwide, especially where the politics of peace seems to be rising to a crescendo. Hillary Clinton attended the film's American debut and urged the U.S. Congress to learn from the film and from Mandela's example. "Each of us has an opportunity every single day to reach out across the lines which divide us by race, gender- any artificial barrier to our own humanity," the First Lady told the audience at New York's Ziegfeld Theater. Our nation's debates today are not about dollars, but about values. About the kind of people we are, and whether we are willing to support those who are vulnerable among us -- children and elderly -- and whether we're willing to stand up for the least among us. "If it could be done at a time that Cry, the Beloved Country was written, if it could be done from inside the walls of a prison, if it could be done within a country struggling to overcome so many challenges, then why in the world can't we in the richest country on earth do more to heal ourselves, to reach out and help each other and build a future we can be proud of?" That's the spirit of peace the film was meant to engender. Yet, when Harris is asked whether the level of understanding achieved between Kumalo and Jarvis was possible between an Irish Catholic and a Protestant, Harris sits back quietly and shakes his head. He is rattled, realizing suddenly, perhaps never applying the lessons of the film to his own life, his own nation's conflicts. "I think there's just too much history between them," he finally mutters sadly. An answer the author Alan Paton would surely have lamented when he wrote: "Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country."

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