DVD/Blu Ray

A Dry White Season (15) |Home Ents Review

Dir. Euzhan Palcy, US, 1989, 107 mins

Cast: Donald Sutherland, Jurgen Prochnow, Zakes Mokae, Janet Suzman, Marlon Brando, Susan Sarandon, Winston Ntshona, Thoko Ntshinga

Review by Colin Dibben

The first major Hollywood produced film directed by a Black woman gets the high-definition Blu-ray treatment for the first time in the UK. It is an exceptional and nuanced piece of work that is well worth watching.

The year is 1976. Ben (Sutherland) is a white Afrikaans teacher in apartheid South Africa, living the dream with wife Susan (Suzman) and blond-haired, blue-eyed moppets. They live in a lovely house and garden, the latter tended to by Gordon (Ntshona), a Black South African.

When Gordon’s pre-teen son is arrested by the police and dies in custody, Ben says he’ll ask his circle of connected friends to look into the matter. At the same time, Gordon asks local taxi-driver and activist Stanley (Mokae) to help. Matters escalate, with terrible results for Gordon and his family.

After Ben engages the services of human rights lawyer McKenzie (Brando), his own lifestyle, livelihood and life are in danger: the ultra-harsh security services and the police captain, Stolz (Prochnow), who is personally implicated in what happens to Gordon and his son, will do anything to stop the truth getting out.

Made in Zimbabwe and the UK, A Dry White Season boasts a great cast at every level of the story. As well as the famous actors, the film is packed with faces you’ll recognize. Some of the accents are a bit slippery but who cares?

Zakes Mokae’s Stanley is arguably the character who holds the drama together when you watch it today. If this was just a story of black victims, white violence, white ignorance and Ben’s awakening conscience, it would be open to criticisms of ‘white saviourism’. As it is, Palcy goes to great lengths to show the agency of the non-white South Africans, indeed the necessity for violent activism, even if that means individuals die. It is a surprisingly radical message for a Hollywood film, even if by 1989 the cards were on the table for apartheid on South Africa.

Director Palcy wanted realism in the depictions of Soweto in 1976, the violence on the streets of Soweto and the torture in the police cells as well as the privileged lifestyles of the Afrikaans elite. The play off between the two settings is really powerful. The riot scenes look realistic but also verge on the epic in their stylisation; the torture is especially hard to watch even though we thankfully only glimpse it.

The thoroughly overkill nature of the South African state’s violence comes across every step of the way.

Extras include:

  • A Dry White Season intro and Q&A (2019, 36 mins): director Euzhan Palcy talks to Lydia Ogwang following a 30th anniversary screening at TIFF
  • André Brink (1990, 19 mins): the author discusses his novel, the film adaptation and his own political awakening
  • Jemima + Johnny (1966, 30 mins): a short film by South African activist and filmmaker Lionel Ngakane, featuring a cameo by Zakes Mokae
  • The Burning (1968, 32 mins): Stephen Frears’ debut film depicts apartheid-era South Africa through the eyes of a young boy

A Dry White Season comes to Blu-ray for the first time in the UK on 17 June 2024.