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Black Warns South African Censors About Showing “Cry Freedom″

July 29, 1988

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ A black television personality Thursday told censors deciding whether to ban Richard Attenborough’s film ″Cry Freedom″ that he had ″never seen a better recipe for revolution.″

Justice Tshungu was testifying before South Africa’s highest censorship board. The board is to decide whether to allow the emotional saga about a black rights activist to be shown in this racially segregated country.

The board said after the session it would announce its decision only 30 minutes before the movie was scheduled to open Friday in more than 30 cinemas nationwide.

Right-wing whites have labelled the film leftist propaganda and argued for its banning. Some blacks, on the other hand, have criticized it, saying it overemphasizes black activist Steve Biko’s association with a white journalist.

Tshungu, who used to appear in programs about black customs on a South African television channel aimed at a white audience, warned censors Thursday that scenes of police shooting fleeing children would inflame hatred.

He said if the government allowed the movie to be shown, blacks would interpret it an admission that the attitudes of police and government officials portrayed in the film are accurate.

The Publication Appeals Board said after hearing arguments of attorneys and academics that it would give its ruling at 9:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m. EDT) Friday, just a half-hour before the first matinees start.

Earlier this year, the board approved showing the film without cuts, age or audience restrictions. However, Home Affairs Minister Stoffel Botha this week ordered the board to reconsider. He did not give a reason.

The scheduled opening in April was cancelled after government officials suggested that the film might violate security laws because it quoted Donald Woods, a South African newspaper editor who befriended Biko and fled the country after his death.

The movie, which shows the friendship between Woods and Biko, is based on two books by Woods, who cannot be quoted in South Africa more than 10 years after he left.

United International Pictures, the movie’s distributors, said they would not show the film in South Africa until the government gave assurances no one would be prosecuted. When Friday’s opening was announced, the company’s spokesmen refused to say whether they had received such assurances.

The advertising campaign for Friday’s opening was more low-key than in April, when newspaper ads quoting Woods and Biko were published a month in advance.

″Cry Freedom″ was filmed in neighboring Zimbabwe and focuses on Biko, who died in 1977 in police custody after founding and promoting the black consciousness movement. The movement advocates improving blacks’ self-image and self-reliance in the struggle for political rights.

The film was released last year and nominated for three Academy awards, but it failed to win any.

South Africans, who live under segregation rules known as apartheid, have never seen a movie with such emotional and violent scenes about their own country. They have never seen police portrayed as villains in a project of such scope.

By law and custom, apartheid establishes a racially segregated society in which South Africa’s 26 million blacks have no vote in national affairs. The 5 million whites control the economy and maintain separate districts, schools and health services.

Attenborough’s film opens with police destroying the Crossroads squatter camp at dawn, with bulldozers knocking over shacks as men, women and children scream and run.

Police are also shown opening gunfire on a crowd of peaceful black schoolchildren demonstrating in Soweto in 1976. The scores of deaths prompted months of violence and is commemorated every year by nationwide black work and school boycotts.

No one was officially found responsible for Biko’s death, and the film does not portray what happened to him in police custody after his arrest for violating a banning order that restricted him to his home in Port Elizabeth.

But Biko is shown unconscious, bruised, frothing at the mouth, lying naked and handcuffed in a cell. The film shows policemen tossing him naked into the back of a truck and his head knocking against the floor as he is driven hundreds of miles to Pretoria, where he died in the prison hospital.

Those film details are all based on evidence at the inquest into his death.

Johan van der Byl, chairman of the Publication Appeals Board, said it might consider cutting the Crossroads scene and the Soweto shooting scene.

Attenborough and United International Pictures have said they will not allow the movie to be screened if it is cut or restricted in any way.

At the hearing Thursday, a professor from the University of South Africa’s Communications Department, Pieter Fourie, said the film would have a stronger effect on whites than blacks.

He said whites might be shocked by scenes of violence and living conditions in the black townships, but blacks might just consider such scenes similar to everyday life.

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