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Review: A Dry White Season (1989)

A Dry White Season (1989)

Directed by: Euzhan Palcy

Premise: Taking place in South Africa during apartheid, a white schoolteacher (Donald Sutherland) is awakened to the brutalities of apartheid and begins to protest against it. As he dissents, he finds himself a target of the establishment.

What Works: A Dry White Season is a film about political and ethical awakening and the film faces some very tough issues. Often this kind of film lends itself to oversimplified dualistic notions where once the awakening takes place the protagonist joins up with the good, resistance forces against the evil, oppressive establishment. A Dry White Season presents a more complex relationship between the protagonist and the system, as Donald Sutherland’s character attempts to use the courts and other legal forms of grievance to achieve justice. By sending the character through these avenues, the film is able to portray the corruption of the apartheid system more fully and lend weight to those who fight against it outside of the boundaries of the law. The film also puts an interesting spin on the act of awakening through the reactions of the lead character’s family. Although everyone in his family is a witness to the initial injustice, some of them choose to ignore it or are intimidated enough by the power structure to acquiesce. The decision to stand as a witness to truth and justice has serious consequences; there is a cost to the main character’s professional and personal life that amplifies the threat of systems like apartheid, making it clear that this is not really about race but rather about maintaining a hegemonic system.

What Doesn’t: Some elements of the film’s storytelling style are a bit dated. An antiapartheid organizer played by Zakes Mokae is a little under used and those looking for insight into the activities of the antiapartheid movement won’t find it here, as the scale of the film is intimate and focused on how Sutherland’s character gravitates toward consciousness.

DVD extras: None.

Bottom Line: A Dry White Season is a terrific film. It may not be a feel good picture but it is empowering in the way that it dramatizes resistance to injustice.

Episode: #237 (May 3, 2009)