There's a lot of Oscar talk surrounding James Earl Jones' performance in "Cry, the Beloved Country," and a best-actor nomination would certainly be earned.
This is especially driven home by the film's centerpiece sequence, a powerhouse scene that brings Jones together with Richard Harris. You might think that means these two strong actors display explosive emotional fireworks. But it's quite the opposite, a subtle and quiet exchange that is enhanced by silent pauses, resulting in a tremendously moving movie moment.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie can't live up to it. The film isn't bad, you understand, but neither is it as stunning or emotionally satisfying as this single scene, which comes in the final third. Though it does try.
An adaptation of Alan Paton's 1948 novel (filmed before in 1951, with Sidney Poitier in the cast), "Cry, the Beloved Country" focuses on aging pastor Stephen Kumalo (Jones). Early in the film, Kumalo is seen walking down a country road as wealthy landowner James Jarvis (Harris) rides by on horseback. But little do these two men who have never formally met know that their lives are about to be entangled by tragedy.
Living with his wife in a remote Zulu village in South Africa, Kumalo receives a letter about his sister, which prompts him to travel to distant Johannesburg.
Kumalo has never been in the big city before, but he hopes this opportunity will reunite him with his estranged son, as well as his sister and brother.
Unfortunately, fate is not kind.
Immediately upon arriving in town, Kumalo is robbed. He seeks out his sister only to discover she has become a prostitute. His brother John (Charles S. Dutton) has become a manipulative political activist and ridicules Kumalo's devotion to God.
Worst of all, Kumalo finds his son has been accused of murder, along with John's son. And when they hear what their boys have to say, John turns his back on Kumalo in an effort to have his son released at any cost.
Without giving any more away, suffice it to say that Kumalo, John and everyone else involved is changed by this experience, followed by reconciliation and a resolve for racial harmony.
"Cry, the Beloved Country" is never as emotionally satisfying as it would like to be, and director Darrell James Roodt would have done well to try and avoid some obvious cinematic cliches.
But in the end, there is enough here to prompt some thought and discussion, and certainly the performances make it well worth a look.
The film is rated PG-13, though it seemed to me to be in PG territory, for violence and language.