The Rev. Stephen Kumalo: James
James Jarvis: Richard
Absalom Kumalo: Eric Miyeni
John Kumalo: Charles S. Dutton
Directed By Darrell
Produced By Anant Singh. Written By Ronald Harwood.
Running Time: 120
Rated PG-13 (For Emotional Thematic Elements And Brief
December 20, 1995
like a simple parable when a more spirited message might have been
Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country set the tone for half a century
of liberal sentiment about South Africa; now, after apartheid has been
lifted by majority rule and the election of Nelson Mandela, it has
inspired the first major film out of the new South Africa. We go
expecting to be inspired and uplifted, and we leave somewhat satisfied
in those areas, but with reluctant questions about how well the story
has aged, and how relevant it is today.
Paton's prose, which
reads as if Hemingway had been rewritten by King James, lends itself to
gravity and morality, but not to irony or sharp observation. The film,
directed by Darrell James Roodt, has the same limitations.
novel was published in 1948, just as South Africa's whites were putting
apartheid into place. Paton took his Christianity seriously, and his
book cried out that whites and blacks should learn to love one another.
And so they should, but what followed were decades during which love
was not the word that came to mind in the beloved country.
indeed incredible that South Africa made its transition peacefully, by
election; if the opposing forces did not make love, at least they did
not make war. Quite likely the deep-seated religious beliefs on all
sides of the racial divide helped that process; the ruling Nationalist
Party would hardly have handed over power if the theologians and elders
of the Afrikaners' Dutch Reformed Church had not decided, somewhat
belatedly, that it was the right thing to do. And the influential
churches of the non-whites were a counterforce to violent revolutionary
So Paton's strongly held Christianity was not just a
personal conviction, but did reflect real social forces in a country
that takes religion more seriously than many. Yet watching the film of
his novel, I had the uneasy feeling we were getting a gentle parable
when an angry exhortation might have been more appropriate.
story involves two fathers - one a black umfundisi, or preacher; the
other, a wealthy white landowner. Both come from the same rural
backwater, but have never met. One day the pastor, Stephen Kumalo
(James Earl Jones), gets a letter calling him to Johannesburg, where
both his sister and son have been drawn. The sister has been lured into
prostitution. The son, Absalom Kumalo (Eric Miyeni), has fallen in with
In the eyes of the country pastor, Jo'burg and its
black sister city, Sophiatown, are dens of iniquity. He is quickly
robbed, then befriended by the local bishop. He finds his sister
leading the life he feared. He visits his brother, John Kumalo (Charles
S. Dutton), who is an activist leader. He finds that his son has
gotten a girlfriend pregnant. And then there is a murder of a white
man, and it is revealed that the sons of both Stephen and John Kumalo
were involved in the killing.
The dead white man was a good man,
all agree; he was president of the Boys' Club for young blacks in the
city district, and was much loved by them. It is a curious coincidence
that he was the son of James Jarvis (Richard Harris), the white
landowner who is the preacher's neighbor. After the plot works itself
through, we are left with the powerful conclusion. Jarvis, originally a
racist, has had a spiritual reconciliation. He seeks out the preacher,
they share their sadness, and the white man sees that the black man's
church has a leaky roof and offers to replace the aging church.
two black youths are convicted of murder, but the activist brother
hires a good lawyer who gets his son off. The preacher's son, after
marrying the pregnant girl in jail, is executed, and then the film ends
with the legend, "Nelson Mandela's South Africa has abolished the death
penalty" - as if the death penalty was what the film was about.
film paints a pretty picture, but only by hurrying past certain awkward
points. Why is it, for example, that thbrother who is an urban activist
is painted as the shifty conniver, while the simple rural pastor is
idealized for his passivity and acceptance? Is that how "Nelson
Mandela's South Africa" became a reality? And is the pastor's flock of
poor rural farm laborers expected to settle into 45 years of thankful
docility because the white landowner has given them a church? There is
a reason the son and sister fled to Johannesburg, and that reason is
employment; subsistence jobs in agriculture are no more attractive in
South Africa than anywhere else. It might have been different if blacks
had been allowed to own the land they farmed, but apartheid and its
Group Areas Act was, of course, busily eradicating that right as the
two fathers were embracing on their hillside.
The film has
genuine qualities. Its photography and tone evoke a South Africa that
is indeed beloved by its inhabitants ("If the climate and the landscape
were not so beautiful, we would have had a revolution 50 years ago,"
Paton is said to have observed). The performances by Jones and Harris
have a quiet dignity, suitable to the characters if not reflecting a
larger reality. But the film contains little that would have concerned
the South African censors under apartheid. It is not dangerous.
is a nice thought that racial prejudice and strife in South Africa and
elsewhere would end if we could all but love one another. "Cry, the
Beloved Country" reflects a sentimentality that motivates many people,
but it fails as a portrait of what it used to be like in South Africa,
what happened and what it's like now.
© 1995 Roger