Sunday, July 19, 2020

A Dry White Season Is, Tragically, Still An All Too Relevant Feature

Ben du Toit (Donald Sutherland) thought he had his life in South Africa figured out. In his eyes, everything was as it should be, every person in society was living in their proper place. After all, he didn't suffer in his day-to-day life. Therefore, nobody, least of all his gardener Gordon Ngubene (Winston Ntshona), could be suffering around him. Of course, du Toit carried this perception while working as a schoolteacher in a school for white children only. The horrors of a racist society were staring him in the face every day yet he failed to see these injustices. However, Ben du Toit's entire cozy worldview is shattered when Nbubene goes to investigate the sudden disappearance and death of his son.

These events happened right after Ngubene's child was taken into the hands of South African police. After going out of his way to figure out where these officers and government officials buried his child, Ngubene himself ends up dead. Suddenly, du Toit's eyes are opened to the horrors happening all around. The plot for A Dry White Season sounds like it could be heading in a predictable direction. Du Toit will surely learn an easy lesson about racism being bad and then a tidy ending will quietly reassure white audiences that racism is a thing of the past. Luckily, writers Colin Welland and Euzhan Palcy take things in a far more interesting direction.

For one thing, du Toit's revelation about how he's been living in a corrupt society comes early on, it's not the predictable endpoint the entire story hurtles towards. Instead, much of the tension in A Dry White Season doesn't come from whether du Toit will learn an obvious lesson but rather how his life begins to fall apart around him as he becomes a more active crusader against apartheid. Such difficulties see adversaries emerge in the very people du Toit once held closest, including his own wife. Becoming more aware of racism doesn't solve du Toit's problems like it does for white characters in a traditional White Savior movie. A Dry White Season realizes du Toit has been too blanketed in privilege for too long for all his problems to just vanish once he starts fighting for Ngubene's family.

Instead, du Toit's family life begins to shatter, which leads to a number of riveting scenes in du Toit's domestic life. This includes a sequence where du Toit's wife outright urges her husband to give up his fight and "side with your own people" while du Toit's daughter turns out to be betraying her father simply so that things can "go back to the way they were". One of the most insightful pearls of wisdom from Martin Luther King Jr. was how one of the biggest obstacles for Black civil rights was "the white moderate". Such people may not spill racial epithets, they'll even likely say racism is wrong. However, they always place their own comfort over the anguish of the disenfranchised. For them, it's never the right time to fight for what's right. Du Toit's family ends up embodying the White moderate.

In the fight against apartheid, it isn't just violent South African government officials who serve as a daunting enemy. It's also people like du Toit's wife and daughter, who see their own stability as the most important thing in the world. That level of insight doesn't just make A Dry White Season a thoughtful examination of how systemic racism persists, it also makes this dramatic thriller all the more compelling. Also making the movie all the more engrossing is how the scope of A Dry White Season gets smaller and smaller as the runtime goes on. The story starts out with a relatively expansive scope, particularly in a scene following numerous different Black protestors evading brutally violent police officers (but I repeat myself).

By the time the third act comes, we're now following du Toit almost exclusively as he just tries to keep South African government authorities from nabbing precious incriminating documents. It becomes something akin to a political thriller and quite a captivating one at that! Even if it becomes more and more intimate as it goes, A Dry White Season never loses sight of characters beyond Ben du Toit. In fact, one of the most impressive things about A Dry White Season is how its resolution for du Toit's storyline evoked Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life. In both Season and Life, fights for the rights off people are fought by smaller-names that don't get statues or medals. Everyday people that you may never have heard of are the ones who lay the groundwork for change.

Combine that thoughtful concept with a brutal ending straight out of grim 1970s fare like Mikey & Nicky or Sorcerer and A Dry White Season wraps itself up on a high note. Said note leaves one with the correct notion that the fight against apartheid in South Africa, as well as against systemic racism the world over, is far from over. Euzhan Palcy's 1989 feature is just as seemingly relevant today as it was in its initial release. Crusading against systemic forms of oppression is, tragically, something that persists against the ages. Thankfully, we have art like A Dry White Season to remind us all about the human beings locked in that fight against oppression.

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