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A dry white poster
A Dry White Season
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Director Euzhan Palcy (Sugar Cane Alley) adapted Andre Brink’s novel A Dry White Season (1979) into a fascinating and fiercely contemporary period film; the best of the small crop of late ‘80s Hollywood feature films to tackle the issue of South African apartheid. Donald Sutherland stars as Ben Du Toit, a teacher at a whites-only school in 1976 Johannesburg. When his Zulu gardener (playwright Winston Ntshona) and the gardener’s son disappear after an incident of violence instigated by the white police during a peaceful political demonstration, Ben decides to bring this incident up before a court, naively believing that justice will be served. This choice makes life extremely difficult for Ben and his family, upending their comfortable, insulated Afrikaner lives which, till now, have enabled them to view themselves as moderate progressives despite their extreme privilege as whites in the apartheid state. 

As with Cry Freedom (1987) and A World Apart (1988), critics judged the film negatively for centering a South African story on white characters played by western actors who couldn’t even master the dialects. But dismissing powerful narratives like these is misguided because all three pictures were part of the movement that raised awareness about apartheid and contributed to its downfall. And, unlike the other two, A Dry White Season is told almost equally from the white and black perspectives. It enabled Western audiences to dramatically experience what it might be like to be both a black person in South Africa and a white person of conscience living in that country blindly accepting apartheid as the accustomed norm of society. Movies that challenge white people to look beyond their privileged were every bit as politically and socially important in 1989 as films that brought mainstream visibility to underrepresented communities. A Dry White Season and its ilk are about stepping outside of your own experience and confronting what ignorance enables you to view as fair, normal, or simply not your problem. 

The movie was made and released during the Apartheid era when South Africa was under pressure from most of the rest of the world in the form of protests and boycotts that threatened the survival of the blatantly and proudly racist government. Naturally, the ruling regime at the time wanted no part of this production and the location footage was all shot in neighboring Zimbabwe. Palcy was determined to present the film as accurately as possible so she traveled to Soweto undercover to research the uprising of ’76 and the contemporary protest movement while working on the screenplay. She took a considerable risk as a black woman filmmaker pretending to be someone she was not. While much of the movie was shot in England, it has an authentic feel, due in part to the large number of South Africans who participated; all the black members of the cast were actors from South Africa. Of course, there are also American, Canadian, German, and British movie stars who struggle with the Afrikaner accent (especially Sutherland and Susan Sarandon) but the awkwardness of the dialect disappears as we get drawn further and further into the movie.

A Dry White Season was also notable for its supporting performance from Marlon Brando. The eccentric, reclusive star came out of his self-imposed, decade long retirement to play the role of human rights lawyer Ian McKenzie. While this was certainly not Brando’s final film, it was the last movie he did that he took fully seriously. He was so moved by Palcy's commitment to social change that he agreed to wave his typically overblown fee for conceding to appear in a movie and worked for union scale. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Academy and many other critical organizations for the performance. Many audiences were disappointed that Brando is only in the picture for about fifteen minutes, and his wonderful performance takes place in the middle of the picture, resulting in a slightly awkward structural imbalance that probably wouldn’t have occurred were any other actor cast in the role. But for me, the movie is elevated magnificently by his presence and the power of the courtroom scene he dominates.

The picture was not a major success and has been all but forgotten, which is a pity as it’s one of the year’s best films. It is historically notable for being the first major Hollywood studio movie directed by a black woman.

Twitter Capsule:
Euzhan Palcy's unflinching adaptation of Andre Brink’s novel challenges the complacency of liberal-minded people of privilege, forcing eyes open to the horrors of apartheid via a compelling, well-structured cinematic narrative.


Directed by Euzhan Palcy
Produced by Paula Weinstein, Tim Hampton, and Mary Selway

Screenplay by Colin Welland and Euzhan Palcy
Based on the novel by Andre Brink

With: Donald Sutherland, Janet Suzman, Jürgen Prochnow, Zakes Mokae, Winston Ntshona, Leonard Maguire, Susannah Harker, Rowen Elmes, John Kani, Michael Gambon, Susan Sarandon, and Marlon Brando

Cinematography: Kelvin Pike and Pierre-William Glenn
Editing: Sam O'Steen and Glenn Cunningham
Music: Dave Grusin

Runtime: 97 min
Release Date: 20 September 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1