AFI Movie Club: CRY FREEDOM – American Film Institute
Cry Freedom Film Still - Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington



CRY FREEDOM showcases the artistry of AFI Life Achievement Award winner Denzel Washington, who has five films honored across AFI’s 100 YEARS lists of the greatest films of all time. 

In this exclusive AFI Archive video, watch Denzel Washington talk about making CRY FREEDOM.

Movie Trivia about CRY FREEDOM


CRY FREEDOM is based on the real-life friendship between South African black activist Steve Biko and white journalist Donald Woods, who wrote two books about their perilous campaign to end apartheid and promote racial equality. Biko’s anti-apartheid writings were banned in South Africa when CRY FREEDOM was released in 1987. 


When Donald Woods began writing his book “Biko,” he was breaking South African law. At the time, he had been placed under “banning orders,” preventing him from sharing his ideas in words.  


During production of CRY FREEDOM, South Africa was still beset with violent political turmoil, and the filmmakers were forced to shoot on location in Zimbabwe instead. They were later criticized for bolstering the Zimbabwean economy while its government was conducting a genocide against the Ndebele people. The filmmakers unequivocally responded that they were not aware of the massacre at that time. 


Universal Pictures successfully fought to have an uncensored version of the film screened in South Africa and demanded that theaters de-segregate for black and white communities to watch together as a unified audience. Government censors feared CRY FREEDOM would provoke violence. 


CRY FREEDOM’s editor, Lesley Walker, got her start as a negative cutter and receptionist at a film lab in England. Since the late 1970s, she has worked with top British directors including Sir Richard Attenborough, Terry Gilliam and Mike Leigh.


CRY FREEDOM marked Denzel Washington’s first Oscar® nomination. It is one of nine Academy Award® nominations he has received to date, including wins for Best Actor for TRAINING DAY and Best Supporting Actor for GLORY. 


South African jazz musician and composer Jonas Gwagwa was forced into exile by the South African government in the 1970s. He went on to receive two Oscar® nominations for Best Original Score and Best Original Song for his work on CRY FREEDOM.  


CRY FREEDOM was nominated for three Academy Awards® in the following categories: Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Original Song and Best Original Score. 


The movie doesn’t end at the credits: Family-friendly Discussion Questions

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-CRY FREEDOM represents actual events in the life of Steve Biko, a brilliant black South African who was murdered for his anti-apartheid activism. However, Biko’s story is told through several lenses of white perspectives. Biko’s friend and biographer, Donald Woods, wrote the film’s source material, and his book was then adapted by John Briley and reimagined for the screen by director Sir Richard Attenborough. Considering the institutionalized racism depicted in CRY FREEDOM, what do you think could be at issue with white storytellers representing Biko’s life?  

-CRY FREEDOM was instrumental in bringing attention to the devastating effects of racist apartheid in South Africa, and it prompted many viewers to take action. Some scholars pondered why it took over10 years after Steve Biko’s murder in 1977 for his story to gain traction. Why do you think the movie attracted more attention to Biko and South African apartheid than his murder?   

-CRY FREEDOM is based on the book “Biko,” which journalist Donald Woods began writing in secrecy. At that time, he was placed under “banning orders” which prevented him by law from sharing his ideas. What would it be like to lose this freedom? How does this loss of freedom compare to the disenfranchisement and subjugation of black South Africans in CRY FREEDOM? Do you think CRY FREEDOM is more about Woods than Biko? 

-Do you think CRY FREEDOM is historically accurate? Is it important to you that the movie is true to life, or do you think filmmakers should take artistic license? Are there parts of the story that seem more “real” than others? 

-Afrikaans is a South African language that combines the traditional Dutch of the early colonizers and the African languages that were spoken for centuries—therefore the word “apartheid” is deeply codified and sanctioned in South African vocabulary. Did you know what “apartheid” meant before seeing CRY FREEDOM? How does the use of language impact the story?

-CRY FREEDOM depicts systematic racism and segregation in South Africa, which was famously toppled with the presidential election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. Do you see any comparisons to the current systems of government, economics and community-planning? How did CRY FREEDOM make you feel about your own beliefs?  

-How would you rate CRY FREEDOM? 


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