Cry, the Beloved Country (1951)

1st October 2023

Cry, the Beloved Country arrives on Blu-ray, DVD and digital on October 9 under the StudioCanal Vintage Classics label.

In adapting Alan Paton’s classic novel, published in 1948 on the eve of apartheid, Zoltan Korda’s powerful, beautiful and political 1951 film is wrapped by beginnings and endings. Cry, the Beloved Country was to be Canada Lee’s final film and one of Sidney Poitier’s first. It was also Korda’s penultimate film after a career of British imperialist adventures in the director’s chair and his first challenge to themes of colonialism and oppression. It was, equally, the first major British motion picture to be shot on location in a divided and turbulent South Africa and the last for many decades to come. Korda would inform the South African immigration authorities that Poitier and Lee were indentured servants rather than actors to get them into the country. Poitier said in a CBS interview in 1998, “Cry, the Beloved Country, was a first-hand look at how apartheid operated. It was an evil system. To have spent 13 weeks in Johannesburg shooting the movie, I got to know South Africa, and from the standpoint of someone of colour, the experience was Educational.” 

Cry, the Beloved Country, sees Canada Lee’s impoverished Anglican Reverend Kumalo travel from rural South Africa to Johannesburg in search of his missing sister and son. There, he meets Reverend Msimangu (Poitier), a young South African clergyman who helps him find his sister in the slums of Johannesburg before discovering his son is accused of murdering the son of a prominent white landowner, James Jarvis. Through his son’s trial, Kumalo attempts to navigate the hatred and division surrounding him while dealing with his spiritual guilt as he reaches out a hand to Javis. But will Javis take that hand or reject it as Kumalo’s son faces the repercussions of an action built on fear?

Paton’s novel was written at a furious pace as apartheid loomed, his Christian beliefs at the heart of a story that explored the social divides, racism, poverty and injustice of a South African state and society tearing itself apart. Paton would work with Korda in adapting his novel under British Lion Films, a production company with whom Korda was inextricably linked, alongside the uncredited writer John Howard Lawson, who, like Canada Lee, was blacklisted in Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Paton would ensure the anger and injustice that sat at the heart of his novel transferred to the screen through the outstanding performances of Lee, Poitier, Geoffrey Keen, Ribbon Dhlamini, Joyce Carey and Charles Carson while retaining an atmosphere of hope that the divide and hate of apartheid could be disrupted and changed through Christian values of love, forgiveness and tolerance. Of course, when viewed through a modern-day lens, Paton’s belief in Christianity as a solution is flawed; after all, Christianity itself was a tool of empire and colonisation used to subjugate many African nations. However, Cry, the Beloved Country does reflect the emerging horrors of apartheid and the supercharged march toward division, injustice and community segregation in South Africa. 

Lovingly restored in 4K from the original negatives by The British Film Institute for StudioCanal, the courage, bravery and beauty of Zoltan’s film are evident from the first scene, as it weaves a complex tapestry of grief, hope, defiance and healing, while never shying away from the abject darkness and fear of a society tearing itself apart through hate and racism. Here, Lee’s final performance is electric, as he brings his lived experience of intolerance, hatred and American racial oppression to the role of Kumalo. The House Un-American Activities Committee had long regarded Lee as a threat to American ideals, banning him from work in the United States due to his civil rights activism. Lee wasn’t in good health during the filming of Cry, the Beloved Country, and this is evident throughout but also gives his performance a deep vulnerability as he attempts to balance his grief, anger, forgiveness and despair with his faith.

Meanwhile, Carson is compelling as a stubborn, racist, wealthy man forced to explore his bias and bigotry through grief. At the same time, Sidney Poitier is outstanding as a young priest attempting to navigate a path through the growing division surrounding him, as his faith is tested by people looking for simplistic answers to the intolerance and hate that hangs in the air. 

While Cry, the Beloved Country’s spiritual undertones occasionally mask the true horror of apartheid, Zoltan’s film remains a powerful and unflinching portrait of the cruelty, injustice and racism of a country marching toward oblivion in the name of white supremacy and a testament to the bravery and power of cinema in uncovering uncomfortable truths. Cry, the Beloved Country was remade for the screen in 1995, with James Earl Jones as Reverend Kumalo and Richard Harris as Jarvis, but it is Zoltan’s original that continues to speak to us today. Cry, the Beloved Country reminds us that hate and oppression surround us, and once we walk down that path, the journey back to freedom, liberty and hope is challenging, long and complex. It is a call for equality, a defiant cry for human rights, and a reminder that we are one human race under the same sky.

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