This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
When you are safe and well-off, and life has fallen into a soothing routine, there is a tendency to look the other way when trouble happens - especially if it hasn't happened to you. Say, for example, that you are a white schoolmaster in South Africa and live in a comfortable suburban home with your wife and two children. Suppose your African gardener's son disappears one day. How do you feel? You feel sorry, of course, because you have humanitarian instincts. But if it appears that the boy was the victim of police brutality, and may be imprisoned illegally? What do you do then? In a country where the gardener has little hope of lodging an effective appeal, do you stick your neck out and help him? That is the question posed to Ben du Toit (Donald Sutherland) in the opening passages of "A Dry White Season." His answer is almost instinctive: "Best to let it go," he tells the gardener. "No doubt they'll see they made a mistake and release him. There's nothing to be done." This is a sensible answer, if the boy is not your son. But Gordon Ngubene (Winston Ntshona), the gardener, cannot accept it. With the help of an African lawyer, he tries to get some answers, to find out why and how his son disappeared. And it is not very long until Gordon has disappeared, too.
"A Dry White Season" is set in the 1970s, at the time when the schoolchildren of Soweto, an African township outside Johannesburg, held a series of protests. They wanted to be educated in English, not Afrikaans (a language spoken only in South Africa and mostly by whites). The protests resulted in the deaths of many marchers, but the government weathered the storm and clapped a lid on the possibility of a civil uprising, as it always has.
Now we have arrived at another season of protest in South Africa, where to the general amazement of almost everyone involved, peaceful anti-government marches were permitted by the government in Cape Town and Johannesburg. As someone who has visited South Africa and studied for a year at the University of Cape Town, I wonder what the average American reader makes of the headlines. How does he picture South Africa? What does he think life is like there? Does he see these marches in the same context as American freedom marches? Does he ask how 6 million whites can get away with ruling 24 million Africans? This film, based on a novel by Andre Brink, provides a series of bold images to go with the words and the concepts in the stories out of South Africa. Like "A World Apart" (1988), it is set mostly in the pleasant world of white suburbia, an easy commute from the skyscrapers of downtown (some Americans, I believe, still see South Africa in images from old Tarzan movies, and do not know the country is as modern and developed as anyplace in Europe or North America). We meet the schoolteacher, a decent and quiet man, a onetime Springbok sports hero, who finds it easy not to reflect overlong on the injustices of his society. He disapproves of injustice in principle, of course, but finds it prudent not to rock the boat.
Then disaster strikes into the life of the gardener, who also loves his family, and who also lives a settled family life, in a township outside the city. Jonathan, the gardener's son, is a clever lad, and the schoolteacher is helping him with a scholarship. Jonathan is arrested almost at random, and jailed with many other demonstrators, and then a chain of events is set into motion that leads Ben du Toit into a fundamental difference with the entire structure of his society.