By Ralph Novak
September 25, 1989 12:00 PM

Donald Sutherland, Zakes Mokae

Like Cry Freedom, this film depicts the grueling outrage of racism in South Africa mainly from the viewpoint of a white liberal fighting the system. But this movie, directed by a black Martiniquan, Euzhan Palcy, is far more effective at keeping black actors—and the essential problem of South Africa—onscreen.

In a story taken from a novel by white South African André Brinks (who still lives in Grahamstown, South Africa), Sutherland is a high school history teacher in Johannesburg who seems unaware that his country has a race problem. Then his gardener’s son and his gardener are killed during the Soweto uprising of 1976.

Sutherland’s abject naïveté is never quite convincing, but scenes of his whiter-than-white suburban family make for a biting contrast with the lives of their tormented black neighbors. While lots of drama goes on, no moment in the movie is more striking than a party where Sutherland’s guests, all white, chatter on casually about how worthless blacks are, ignoring the black maid who is serving them.

Mokae, a black South African refugee, slyly plays a breezy taxi driver whose respect for whites is nonexistent. But he joins with Sutherland to try to expose the police’s role in the gardener’s death.

Marlon Brando has two effective scenes as a lawyer who helps Sutherland. It’s his first film in 10 years, and he seems to be doing a Sydney Greenstreet imitation, but he lends the film box office weight at least.

Strong support comes from Susan Sarandon as a liberal reporter, South African-born Janet Suzman as Sutherland’s wife and Jurgen (Das Boot) Prochnow as a secret-police officer. Thoko Ntshinga is the gardener’s defiant wife. Especially striking is Rowan Elmes, 14, a schoolboy in Zimbabwe, site of most of the filming. As Sutherland’s son, he radiates intelligence in a story whose grim ending hardly leads to optimism. And his real life—a young white in a struggling black-ruled country—offers a rare bit of symbolic hope for southern Africa. (R)