I had been employed to do the storyboards for a film that came to be called CRY FREEDOM. It was the story of the relationship that developed between South African activist Steve Biko and the white newspaper editor Donald Woods, based largely on Woods’ auto-biographical book ASKING FOR TROUBLE. It was directed by Richard Attenborough; Donald Woods was played by Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Biko.
It drew criticism at the time. Some people thought that a film depicting aspects of the struggle against apartheid in S. Africa should have had black African experience at it’s heart and that to make a white man the hero of the story was, at best, a cop out. It’s a view I had some sympathy with insofar as I, too, would have liked to see harder edged more insightful films about black African experience but I don’t think Attenborough should be blamed for the fact that those films were not being made. He chose a strong story that would attract and emotionally engage a largely un-politicized, white audience -and he did that. There are things that he can be criticized for but not for failing to make a film that he was probably not well suited to or, indeed, ever had any intention of making.
You couldn’t call Lord Attenborough an cutting edge film-maker. His method rested on the principal of refining the script until any and all particles of confusion had been broken down and any cloud of possible misinterpretation dispelled before pointing cameras at the actors as they spoke the lines with maximum clarity. It wasn’t complicated, it wasn’t particularly sophisticated, it certainly wasn’t innovative but, I think it fair to say his films were always humane; they always had a caring and sympathetic heart.
I enjoyed working with him. The one criticism I am willing to air publicly concerns the way he chose to portray Donald Woods’ wife, Wendy. Both Donald and Wendy were around the set a lot during filming and it was obvious to all, no matter how brief their encounter with them, that Wendy, the real Wendy, had little or nothing in common with the rather timid little wifey and mother that Penelope Wilton was asked to portray on film.