Cry the Beloved Country is a 1951 racial drama that’s frequently mentioned as a breakthrough film about race has a reputation as a worthy classic, yet rarely gets mentioned today. That lack of enthusiasm is partly because films about specific moments in racial history frequently offer historical significance but date badly as entertainment; Stanley Kramer’s Guess Whose Coming to Dinner? may have been a hot topic and a big deal in 1967, but ages badly with a patronising attitude that’s more white privilege than black lives matter. But Zoltan Korda’s Cry the Beloved Country has fared rather better over the years; Alan Paton adapts his own bestselling book here, which was written in 1948 as a pre-cursor to apartheid, selling 15 million copies around the world despite being banned in South Africa, and such popularity meant it was quickly adapted for the big-screen under the British Lion imprint.
“Pain and suffering, they are a secret. Kindness and love, they are a secret. But I have learned that kindness and love can pay for pain and suffering. ” This quote provides a reasonable summation of Paton’s bitter-sweet, humanist thesis. Unlike many other racial dramas of the 50’s and 60’s, we get a chance to understand things from a Black POV; Canada Lee plays Kumalo, a elderly Zulu priest from the village of Ixopo Ndotsheni who ventures from his rural homeland to Johannesburg.
‘When people go to Johannesburg, they do not come back,’ Kumalo complains, and he’s got good reason to be fearful. His sister is, unknown to him, a sex-worker in the city, and his son has vanished, prompting Kumalo to visit on a rescue mission, accompanied by a practical priest Theophilus Msimangu (Sidney Poitier) he meets on arrival. Kumalo’s son has fallen on hard times, and when he takes part in a burglary, things go wrong and he kills Arthur Jarvis, a white man who has been campaigning against the oppression of Black people. Kumalo strikes up a friendship with the dead man’s father James, but even their connection can’t stop the wheels of justice turning and condemning Kumalo’s son to death, leaving both father’s bereaved and united in grief…
Cry the Beloved Country is slow-paced and almost quaint by today’s standards. Characters debate whether to open a letter for minutes, smoking is promoted as beneficial (‘it quiets a man to smoke’ ), and a narrow focus on race ignores other issues; girls getting married at 16, for example, passes without comment. But Paton’s view of the roots of racial conflict is timeless, relating to the land itself and the stripping of the natural resources by American colonists, namely gold. ‘The white man in America puts it back in a hole, like the one from where it came,’ is the explanation, but somehow in that obscure, bullying process, humanity is eroded and innocent people are bent out of shape.
Cry the Beloved Country might feel somewhat staid in terms of cinematic technique, but Paton and Korda refuse to accept that exploitation is ‘how the world goes’ and manage to show how racism and racial violence affect all aspects of a community; as with a more modern film like Boyz N The Hood, the focus is not on violence, but the aftermath, what happens after ‘order and tradition have been damaged’ by constructed city life. Well-acted and constructed, Cry the Beloved Country is more relevant now than most well-meaning films of the time because it taps into the guilt and remorse felt by the white land-owners as well as the despair of the locals; it’s a dated film, yes, but it also has a profound meaning which hasn’t changed in the 80 or so years since it was first seen.
Blu-Ray & DVD Extras
· New Canada Lee: An interview with Mona Z Smith
· An interview with Lionel Ngakane (1990)
· In Darkest Hollywood
· African Mirror footage of The World Premiere
· Africa: Alan Paton (1962)
· Behind the Scenes Stills gallery
STUDIOCANAL announces a brand new 4K restoration of Zoltan Korda’s CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY Starring Canada Lee, Sidney Poitier, Charles Carson & Joyce Carey and based on the renowned novel by Alan Paton
On BLU-RAY, DVD & DIGITAL on 9TH OCTOBER