A Dry White Season: Justice Against the Law

A Dry White Season: Justice Against the Law

On Film / Essays — Dec 11, 2018

Note: The terms black and white were part of the way racial categories were referred to in South Africa under apartheid. Other terms, like nonwhite and non-European, were also used to mark racial segregation. In the following essay, the term black is intended to denote a historical racial category, although in contemporary usage and in the context of liberation discourse, the term has come to have a broader meaning, referring to political identity and alliances rather than merely a racial category.

A Dry White Seasonwith its commitment to exposing racial inequality and the inherent tension between the construct of the law and the principle of true justice—is as relevant at our current global political moment as it was on its release in 1989. A legislative system is ostensibly a sociopolitical structure that exists to ensure the just governance of society, one in which all are treated equally and without prejudice before the law (hence the pervasive image of the blindfolded Lady Justice). But as is evident from the history of race, the ideals of justice can be readily corrupted by those who are in power and control the law. This is the central theme of both the film and the book on which it is based. 

The story is set in South Africa in 1976, a watershed year for protests against the apartheid regime. It was during this time that children attending black schools challenged the South African state’s requirement that they be instructed in the Afrikaans language, along with the quality of the education (termed “Bantu education”) that they were receiving. The groundbreaking events of that year began with student protests at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto, a segregated “township” of Johannesburg, the impact of which quickly rippled through the entire country, ultimately having significant repercussions for the apartheid state’s ability to justify and maintain the racist laws that divided South African society. After this point, apartheid became an internationally visible human-rights issue, and the subject of economic sanctions, cultural boycotts, and political lobbying throughout the turbulent eighties. 

André Brink’s novel A Dry White Season—which was published in South Africa in 1979 and swiftly (though temporarily) banned by the government—confirmed Brink’s precarious position: one of the most revered Afrikaans authors of his time, he was also regularly described as a traitor on account of his writing’s condemnation of the apartheid state, exposure of the oppression of the black majority, and indictment of white apathy. In cowriting and directing the film adaptation of Brink’s book, the Martinican Euzhan Palcy was highly attuned to the political urgency represented by the story’s context and content. Before beginning production, she traveled to Soweto in the guise of a musician, in order to research the events of 1976 in secret. She then assembled an international cast and shot the film on location in Zimbabwe and at England’s Pinewood Studios, enabling her to illuminate the plight of black people under apartheid at a time when producing such a frank depiction would not have been possible in South Africa itself. 

Structured as a Bildung narrative, the story centers on Ben Du Toit (Donald Sutherland), a history teacher leading the idyllic life of the middle-class white minority during apartheid, cocooned from the oppression of the black majority. He is drawn into the life of his black gardener, Gordon Ngubene (Winston Ntshona), when Gordon’s son, Jonathan (Bekhithemba Mpofu), is beaten by the police after being arrested in one of the township raids that were routine in South Africa at the time. At first, Ben is convinced that the young boy must have done something to provoke this treatment. His refrain “There is nothing to be done” is set up here to be sharply contradicted during the course of the narrative—he will soon be forced to reexamine this sentiment. The sequence of events following Jonathan’s lashing—his subsequent arrest during the student uprising, Gordon’s search for his son, the boy’s murder, then Gordon’s arrest, torture, and murder—exposes an increasingly shocked Ben to the ways in which the laws of apartheid justified the brutal treatment of black South Africans who challenged the injustices and human-rights violations of the state. 

The film sets Ben against the stereotype of the white racist, the better to draw on his humanism and develop his political and moral awakening, revealing the way segregation allowed for a comfortable ignorance among many white South Africans. His character stands in sharp contrast to that of his wife, Susan (Janet Suzman), who refuses to confront the brutal status quo, or to acknowledge her own complicity with it. Her religious community would have reinforced her position; the Dutch Reformed Church, the largest Afrikaner denomination, infantilized black people and accepted and helped facilitate the government’s policy of separate development, which aimed to enact racial separation along political, social, and economic lines, giving rise to the Group Areas Act of 1950 (assigning racial groups to different residential and business sections in urban areas) and the establishment of Bantu homelands to contain and separate the various black ethnic groups. 


A Dry White Season’s portrayal of its protagonist and his growing realization of the extent of his own ignorance is an unusually nuanced exploration of the way in which institutionalized racism functions.”

In a scene midway through the film in which Ben arrives at the family’s church to inform his wife that Gordon’s supposed suicide in prison was actually a murder at the hands of the police, Susan is clearly concerned only about maintaining appearances in front of their community. “What was the point of coming here?” she asks. “Gordon has been murdered,” he replies. Susan walks away, acknowledging neither the news nor any responsibility for the circumstances of their employee’s death. Her parting words to Ben, when leaving their marriage and home, refer to him and Stanley (Zakes Mokae), the friend of the Ngubenes’ who has been working with Ben to try to find justice for Gordon and Jonathan: “A drunken kaffir and an Afrikaans traitor—you deserve each other.” Her sentiments reverberate in the betrayal of Ben by their daughter, Suzette (Susannah Harker), who also does not want her political and material comfort disrupted. 

As Ben’s conscience makes it increasingly impossible for him to remain oblivious to the violence and brutality of the apartheid state, he becomes alienated from his family and the larger white community that once celebrated him—a former rugby hero and a schoolteacher—as a role model. A Dry White Season’s portrayal of its protagonist and his growing realization of the extent of his own ignorance is an unusually nuanced exploration of the way in which institutionalized racism functions. Also remarkable is the fact that the film was able to deliver its message in opposition to the propaganda of the apartheid state at a time of great political volatility in South Africa. 

The irony of the fact that Ben, a history teacher, has been isolated from the reality of the material circumstances and lived experiences of black people in his own country is skillfully depicted. In an early scene set in Ben’s classroom, we see that the curriculum his white male students are being taught is a nationalist version of Afrikaner history, according to which the Europeans’ appropriation of land and oppression of black people in South Africa were justified as a matter of necessity if they were to overcome the English and survive. 

Later, when looking into his gardener’s disappearance, Ben makes his inaugural trip to Soweto hidden in the back seat of Stanley’s car. This is how he comes to witness the police occupation of the townships firsthand; the official mistreatment of people that he sees ultimately fuels his commitment to seek justice for Gordon’s murder. In pursuing legal representation, Ben meets with the lawyer Ian McKenzie (Marlon Brando), who succinctly explains that justice and law are distant cousins and that “here in South Africa, they’re simply not on speaking terms at all.”

During a compelling courtroom sequence in which he calls to mind To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch, McKenzie exposes how the law’s actual agenda is at odds with the service of justice. In South Africa under apartheid, as we see in A Dry White Season, the law was upheld through the collusion of police with medical experts and by discrediting or coercing through torture the testimony of black witnesses. The courtroom thus becomes a space in which a mockery is made of the ideal of justice, with the law serving the interests of the state alone. 

Palcy had made a name for herself with Sugar Cane Alley, an adaptation of Joseph Zobel’s novel about white colonialist mistreatment of black sugarcane workers in Martinique that won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1983. When turning her attention to South Africa with A Dry White Season—the first picture directed by a black woman to be released by a major Hollywood studio—Palcy used a number of stark contrasts to highlight the injustices of another racist and oppressive society. 

The contrasts between the lives of Ben and Gordon as fathers, as husbands, and as employees are sharply demonstrated throughout the film, revealing how race inscribes privilege and access (or lack thereof). The contrasts between the deprivation and danger of black life in the townships and the advantages and safety of white suburban life are made further palpable in the figures of the two sons: Johan (Rowen Elmes), Ben’s son, and Jonathan. Johan plays rugby at school over the weekend, while Jonathan plays soccer in township streets where police arrest young boys on suspicion that they are politically conspiring against the state. Jonathan’s life is granted no worth; he is killed and his body disposed of without a trace, his parents denied the opportunity to bury their son with dignity, let alone the right to be informed of his death by the authorities. Johan is protected from knowledge of these realities, until he, too, gains awareness of structural racial discrimination and the violence that goes along with it. He eventually comes to assist his father, first protecting the evidence Ben gathers in his search for the truth behind Gordon’s murder, and then getting that evidence to the right informant, who will expose the story to the press.

The poignant opening sequence of the film shows Jonathan and Johan playing with a ball on the lush green lawns of the Du Toits’ suburban house—the place of Gordon’s employment. It is an image that held a promise for the future, in 1989, a projection of a society that could be only imagined, wished for, and hoped for. On the soundtrack are the lamenting voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo (the South African a cappella group had come to international recognition after performing with Paul Simon on his album Graceland a few years earlier).

There is another scene in A Dry White Season that anticipates a more hopeful future, a scene that is particularly resonant for contemporary viewers because its vision has, in a sense, been fulfilled: the singing in protest by young black schoolchildren of the liberation hymn “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (translated from the Xhosa as “Lord, Bless Africa”), composed by Enoch Sontonga in 1897. In 1997, three years after South Africa’s first democratic elections, the opening stanzas of this song were incorporated into the national anthem as a way of recognizing and remembering the past.

“Palcy drew from her clandestine research trip to South Africa, during which she had experienced township life firsthand, with its police occupation and raids.”

Had Palcy tried to shoot the film in South Africa, the production might have been shut down, and the international film crew and cast arrested. Committed to bringing international exposure to the atrocities of the apartheid state, she determined to make A Dry White Season elsewhere. The choice of South Africa’s neighbor Zimbabwe for the location shooting enabled the crew to authentically recreate the landscape and cultural milieu of the film’s setting. Palcy drew from her clandestine research trip to South Africa, during which she had experienced township life firsthand, with its police occupation and raids. The witness’s perspective that she achieved, at considerable personal risk, makes for a remarkable cinematic realism, immediate and infused with urgency—one that balances the depiction of the political and moral enlightenment of a white character with that of the tenacity of a black majority that could no longer endure its subjugation. 

In the figure of Ben, we recognize the truth that justice may remain elusive, and that the pursuit of it, by those who act out of a shared sense of humanism and egalitarianism, can have treacherous consequences when it is flagrantly at odds with the interests of those in power. In the final sequence of the film, Suzette can justify her betrayal of her father because she understands it as being done in the service of the law, which protects her and the few like her whose interests are represented by the state.  

Ben’s fatal end comes at the hands of those serving and upholding the law, and prevents him from seeing the fruit of his labors. But in the case of Gordon’s murder, Ben’s commitment to the belief that “no one can be free till all are free”—to quote his note to the police captain—ultimately brings about a triumph for justice. Those words don’t appear in Brink’s novel, and, according to Palcy, they represent the very essence of what drove her to make this film. 

The end of apartheid, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, the first democratic elections in South Africa, and the condemnation of a legal structure based on racial privilege—these changes were hard-won by individuals, anti-apartheid movements, and international support. Those who challenged the discriminatory laws of the apartheid state were committed to a vision of justice as something that can be encoded in both a society’s laws and its values, holding all people, irrespective of race or color, as free and equal before the law. Sharing in this vision, Euzhan Palcy, like the character of Ben Du Toit, was willing to put herself at personal risk to make the injustices of apartheid visible to the world in A Dry White Season, and the result is an enduringly resonant testament to the capacity of art to effect social and political change.