Few films about South Africa have had the focused rage powering A Dry White Season, in which two families, one white, one black, are destroyed by apartheid. As with other films on the subject, it is the white family, headed by an idealistic schoolteacher (Donald Sutherland), that gets the longer look while the black family, headed by his gardener (Winston Ntshona), is portrayed merely as victims.
The action is set in motion by the 1976 Soweto massacre, where children taking parr in a peaceful demonstration were killed by police. The gardener, searching for his son’s body, is arrested, tortured, and murdered. Sutherland’s character, an earnest and politically naive fellow, slowly awakens to the injustices of a system whose valuee he had once willingly followed. The result is a harrowing South African version of Z — though you would have to be as naive as Sutherland’s character to be truly surprised by the things depicted here.
What gives the movie a charge is the performance (appearance, really) by Marlon Brando as a civil rights attorney hired by Sutherland to prosecute the police. Looking like an unholy combination of Orson Welles, Sydney Greenstreet, and Lee J. Cobb, Brando livens up the movie and gives its rage a keener edge. That he can carry out this kind of balancing act with such effortless grace and power makes you realize, once again, why he is a great actor. B+