A Dry White Season
With this bracing drama, made at the climax of the anti-apartheid movement, director Euzhan Palcy issued a devastating indictment of South Africa’s racist government—and made history in the process, becoming the first black woman to direct a Hollywood studio film. White schoolteacher Ben Du Toit (Donald Sutherland) lives in Johannesburg and remains blissfully incurious about the lives of his black countrymen until a wave of brutal repression comes crashing down on his gardener (Winston Ntshona), bringing Du Toit face-to-face with harsh political realities. Based on a celebrated novel by André Brink and rooted in the first-hand research the Martinican Palcy did in South Africa into the way black people lived under apartheid, A Dry White Season is unflinching in its depiction of violence and its chronicling of injustice, making for a galvanizing tribute to those willing to sacrifice everything to fight oppression.
Euzhan Palcy’s A Dry White Season receives a new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The release is making use of a new 4K restoration scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
Unsurprisingly the restoration work and encode are pretty much near-perfect, the only possible negative I could throw at it maybe being some crushed blacks in a handful of darker scenes. The film is rather grainy looking (a bit surprising), but it’s rendered very well, remaining clean and natural throughout, which lends to the excellent level of detail that is always present throughout the film. Depth is excellent, colours are gorgeously saturated (the blue skies look lovely indeed!) and black levels are consistently strong for the most part (again, some crush creeps in there). And other than a still image that looks a bit off at the end, the print looks fine and damage is never a concern.
The film was made 30 years ago, but it could almost look like it was made just recently.
The film’s audio is presented in lossless PCM 2.0 stereo surround and it’s quite effective. Range manages to be fairly impressive, particularly during the opening demonstration and a few more action-oriented scenes later on. Audio also nicely spreads to the other speakers, though most of the important action sticks to the fronts. Dialogue is clean and easy to hear, and there is no sign of distortion or background noise.
Looking over the features initially doesn’t bring a lot of promise: it looks like fairly standard material. But the material ended up being incredibly rewarding in the end. First is a wonderful conversation between Euzhan Palcy and Scott Foundas. Despite the discussion only being about 35-minutes, it still manages to be an amazingly dense and fascinating one. The two talk about how she came to get into filmmaking and her first film, Sugar Cane Alley. That opened the doors to her doing A Dry White Season, which gained her studio support, and she shares stories about putting the project together (particularly a wonderful one around her asking for permission from the author, who was reluctant to sell the rights to Hollywood). She explains how she modified the story, adding more from the perspective of the black characters in the film (the book was primarily from the white perspective because the author felt that was the only way he could make white people care), and she felt she had to change the ending (and the reasons make sense, and she covers this in another feature on here). She then shares all sorts of details about some of the dangers she faced making the film, how Brando came to be involved, how she cast the roles, the film’s music, and its eventual release. She then talks about the difficulty in getting projects after off the ground, and the reasons for the difficulty are fairly depressing though I guess not surprising. All around, though, it’s an incredible interview, one of the best I’ve seen in a while.
Palcy’s participation doesn’t end there and we get another wonderful interview with her with Five Scenes. This 29-minute feature is sold as the director talking about five specific scenes in the film. It’s actually far more than that, allowing the director to get into more about the research she put into the film, how much more she was able to bring with her involvement, and she even talks significantly more about Brando and the issues that came up afterwards (the actor, who she worked well with, was annoyed that she cut out a moment from the court room sequence because she felt it deadened the impact). This was great and I’d say it’s actually a bit of a shame that Palcy didn’t participate in a commentary.
Following this are then a few quick archival features. There’s a 3-minute interview from 1995 between Palcy and Nelson Mandela, where the leader talks about the women’s role in South Africa. This is followed by an interview with Donald Sutherland performed on NBC’s Today to promote the film. He talks about the film, whether it would be commercial, and then briefly laments about the performance of the Montreal Expos. The features then close with a short bit of footage from an awards ceremony in South Africa, where Palcy received the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo, the country’s highest honour for a foreign dignitary.
Criterion then includes an insert featuring an essay by Jyoti Mistry, addressing the story, how the film exposes apartheid, and what happened with South Africa (and Palcy) after the film’s release.
In the end it’s not a lot of material admittedly, and I’m surprised Criterion didn’t take the opportunity for some historical features on South Africa from this period, but the two features with Palcy are really incredible and add a lot of value all on their own.
An all-around solid presentation and encode with a couple of really great features make this an easy recommendation for anyone looking to pick up the film. A really strong release.