A Dry White Season [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (21st June 2024).
The Film

"A Dry White Season" (1989)

It is 1976, and a group of South Africans demonstrators protest against changes to the education system for blacks. The authorities shoot and kill a number of protesters including children, and make arrests including elementary school student Jonathan Ngubene (played by Bekhithemba Mpofu). His father Gordon (played by Winston Ntshona), a gardener is distraught as he cannot find any information on his son’s whereabouts after the massacre. Ben Du Toit (played by Donald Sutherland) is a white school teacher who employs Gordon and looks to help finding Jonathan. But after Gordon also disappears, Ben looks to uncover the truth, which leads him down a dangerous path as the government starts to spy on his actions. With the help of driver Stanley Makhaya (played by Zakes Mokae), lawyer Ian McKenzie (played by Marlon Brando), and journalist Melanie Bruwer (played by Susan Sarandon), he has trustworthy around him, but there are detractors, including members of his school board and his wife Susan (played by Janet Suzman) who are not rallying for his support.

White South African writer André Brink published the novel “A Dry White Season” in 1979. Recounting the 1976 Soweto Uprising in which more than 1000 people were injured and hundreds killed including young children as they were shot by white authorities, the novel which was originally written in Afrikaans was critical of the white nationalist government and their oppression of blacks in the country through apartheid rule, and subsequently banned in the country. It was also translated into English by Brink himself, and was secretly distributed in the country as well as being published abroad. The character of Ben is somewhat of a mirror if Brink, a white intellectual who was born and raised in the country where the white minority was a ruling class and it was expected that there was separation based on color. Having a comfortable life as a husband and father of two children, his relationships with his black workers are just as workers, but that changes completely after Gordon’s breakdown with his son gone missing after the deadly massacre. In addition, none of the white people believe there was such an incident as it was not reported, yet every black individual knows what clearly happened with the police opening fire. The reenacted sequence is quite brutal with both adults and children being fired upon and the shots being shown with bloody detail. It’s not just the massacre in the opening that brutal violence is shown. There are moments of gruesome torture, lashings, and other injuries shown, and graphically described examples of torture in the courtroom sequences. Atrocities such as these were hidden from the public and even if there were whites that looked to bring them to light, there was little sympathy seen for them as they would have been considered “traitors” to other whites, leading to few if any to speak out.

The character of Ben could be placed as a “white savior” in the controversial marking seen in numerous stories and films, but there was basically very little that a black person could do in the regime as it was. They may have had power in numbers, but it is clearly about rules, restrictions, and dangerous ideals that can shape oppression. Ben going against what his colleagues and his family tell him is a brave one, and Sutherland does a wonderful job being both stern with conviction while also showing signs of fear throughout with his mind opening up to the truth. There are also fantastic performances from Brando in the courtroom scenes in which he came out of retirement for after learning about the story and the role. Sarandon’s character of Melanie does have importance with her connections and getting the story out, though she does feel slightly underwritten. Also important is the rest of the Du Toit family, with Janet Suzman, the only white South African actress in the role, who plays to keep the family safe by aligning with the officials and against her husband, which was contrary to the real Suzman who was the niece of anti-apartheid campaigner and politician Helen Suzman. Son Johan (played by Rowen Elmes) decides to help his father, even taking beatings himself from bullies that accuse him of being a traitor, while daughter Suzette (played by Susannah Harker) takes the side of her mother’s choice.

What should not be overshadowed is the danger that screenwriter and director Euzhan Palcy did for the black actors appearing on screen. As they couldn’t shoot in South Africa, she visited and researched the locations pretending to be American though she was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique. For the filming, it was shot mostly in neighboring Zimbabwe, but because the South African cast could not enter with their visas, they had to be transported to England pretending to travel to work for a stage play, then travel to Zimbabwe to shoot the film. Therefore the South African English accents are authentic, and the emotions coming from the performances are for many, based on real hardships and traumas. Winston Ntshona, Zakes Mokae, Thoko Ntshinga, John Kani, and others were able to give memorable performances to audiences who would have never been able to see them otherwise.

“A Dry White Season” is not an easy watch, and the villainous captain Stolz (played by Jürgen Prochnow) is a villain that cannot be understated with his cold and meticulous presence overseeing Ben and his actions. But this is not just one man’s actions on either side but of a revolution in whole, with one side wanting freedom and the other side trying to keep the oppression set with laws stricter than colonial times. It’s almost inconceivable that atrocities such as this and racial segregation was still part of the western world at the time the film was set, and it was still being enforced when the film was in production in 1989.

The film was produced and released by MGM/UA, and it was the first major Hollywood production to be directed by a black female. Produced with a budget of $9 million, it made its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 1989, followed by a general theatrical release on September 22nd, 1989 in the United States, then a worldwide rollout in the following months. Due to the negative depictions of state officials and the government, it was banned in South Africa, just as the book had been. The film was released just before major changes came to the country. In February of 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and negotiations began to abolish apartheid law in the country, and leading to Mandela’s election as the President of the country in 1994. The country may have abolished apartheid rule and has been a democratic nation with free elections for all, there is still tension that echoes the recent past.

“A Dry White Season” is a socio-political thriller, a historical document, and a message for freedom and change that still rings true, with powerful performances and a powerful message for audiences worldwide. Though the film was not a major hit, grossing just under $4 million theatrically, it was highly acclaimed, with Marlon Brando being nominated for his supporting performance by the Oscars, Golden Globes and others, winning Best Actor at the Tokyo International Film Festival and Palcy winning the International Recognition Award at the Durban International Film Festival.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray


The BFI presents the film in the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The transfer comes from an HD master from MGM. It is not stated in the booklet about the details of the transfer and restoration, but it does look similar to the Criterion Blu-ray release which was restored in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative. While the subject matter may be grim, the colors are bright and bold in this transfer, which looks excellent throughout. Colors are stable with brightness in the light outdoors to the dark hues of night. Detail is excellent and there are no major issues of damage such as dust or speckles for a very clean image, while also keeping the film grain intact. An excellent transfer presented here.

The film's runtime is 107:01.


English LPCM 2.0 stereo
The original stereo audio track is here in uncompressed form. The dialogue is mostly center based, while the left and right separation is used for effects such as the gunshots as well as the music cues from Ladysmith Black Mambazo and score by David Grusin. Dialogue, music, and effects are well balanced and there are no issues such as hiss or crackle for a clean and stable audio track.

There are optional English HoH subtitles for the main feature in a white font. They are well timed and easy to read. There was one spelling error of "I'm sure..." as "I'm sures..." for some reason.


A Dry White Season intro and Q&A (2019) (36:08)
For the film's 30th anniversary, it returned to where it originally premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, programmer Lydia Ogwang introduces Palcy who gives a short introduction to the screening. For the post screening Q&A portion, Palcy discusses about the importance of filmmakers François Truffaut and Robert Redford for their mentorship, her desire to get into filmmaking at an early age, casting black South African actors for the film, shooting in Zimbabwe, the dangers of making the film and having bodyguards during production, the difficulties for getting politically charged films made, and more. The intro & Q&A have also been embedded below.
in 1080i60 AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 without subtitles

1990 interview with André Brink (19:15)
This 1990 interview with Brink by Peter Davis after the release of the film has him discussing his childhood growing up in South Africa, being surprised at the integration of races when he attended university in Paris, the genesis of writing "A Dry White Season", the book being banned in his home country, about the film adaptation and the differences including the changed ending and more. A portion of the interview has been embedded below.
in 1080i60 AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 without subtitles

"Jemima + Johnny" 1966 short (30:16)
It is bustling Notting Hill, London and a group of children are playing outside. Johnny (played by Patrick Hatfield) is a white boy who sees Jemima (played by Nicolette Robinson), a young Jamaican born girl that is new to the neighborhood, and the two take a little journey together. Her parents (played by Thomas Baptiste and Myrtle Robinson) are worried as she seemingly disappeared, as are Johnny's parents (played by Brian Phelan and Dorrothy Bromiley). The short film was directed by South African born actor Lionel Ngakane and shows a more innocent look without racism through the eyes of two children going from shop to park and elsewhere, though racial tensions are higher through the adults, especially as it shows Johnny's father vehemently expressing hatred for black immigrants. It is a short that opens the eyes for the adults with their unnecessary fears of each other, and an optimistic look for the future of the characters and for the country. The short is in black and white and has numerous speckles and scratches on the image, with some flickering as well. The sound was entirely post-synchronized and there it can be slightly hissy and crackly with some dialogue sounding muffled. The booklet mistakenly states this is a 1996 production, but it is in fact a short from 1966. Note the film can be seen on the BFI Player for free. An extract has been embedded below, courtesy of the BFI.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 mono with optional English HoH subtitles

"The Burning" 1968 short (32:11)
Taking place in South Africa, a young white boy Raymond (played by Mark Baillie) is staying with his grandmother (played by Gwen Ffrangcon Davies) and he is bored as there is nothing to do and no other kids to play with. Along with the grandmother's black chauffer Johnny (played by Cosmo Pieterse) and her cook (played by Isabel Muller) they take a short road trip, but the journey is not going to be a smooth one... The short was the directorial debut of Stephen Frears and was shot in Tangier with a small cast and crew. Things seem innocent enough at the home area, with some humor from the boy and the dynamics between the adults, but it becomes a racially charged story with the boy seeing the reality of class divide and the violence that ensues. The black and white image looks quite good, though there are some speckles and scratches that can be found. Audio is fair, though there is some limitation with fidelity.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 mono with optional English HoH subtitles

The first pressing also includes a 24 page booklet. First is a lengthy essay on the film, its themes and the production by journalist Kevin Le Gendre. This is followed by full film credits, special features information, transfer information, acknowledgements, and stills.

As stated, the film was previously released on Blu-ray in North American in 2018 by The Criterion Collection. For its release the extras consisted of a 2018 interview with director Euzhan Palcy by film critic Scott Foundas, the new featurette "Five Scenes", a 1989 interview with actor Donald Sutherland, an excerpt from a 1995 interview Palcy conducted with Nelson Mandela, and footage of Palcy receiving the highest distinction for foreign dignitaries at the 2017 South African National Orders awards.

Other notable clips:

A clip of the film, courtesy of the BFI

1989 interview with Sutherland on the film, from Reelin in the Years

1989 episode of "Siskel & Ebert" with a review of the film (from 12:17~)

2015 news report on the screening of the restored film in South Africa, from South Africa's SABC News channel

An interview with Palcy from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival

Palcy on working with Brando, courtesy of The Criterion Collection

SABC News report of André Brink's passing

Memorial of André Brink, from the University of Cape Town

While preparing this written review, news was reported that the great Donald Sutherland passed away on June 20th, 2024 at the age of 88. With an acting career of over six decades and hundreds of films and television works, he had played in numerous iconic roles over the years whether in the lead or in a supporting part, and was always an incredible professional in every role he took. He will sorely be missed by film fans worldwide.

Entertainment Tonight's tribute to Donald Sutherland


"A Dry White Season" has lost none of its power more than thirty years later, with a gripping story with excellent performances and a message of freedom and social change that rings true. The BFI's Blu-ray release is excellent all across, with a great transfer and a great selection of extras making this highly recommended.

Amazon UK link

BFI Shop link

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: B+ Overall: A-


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