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Cry, The Beloved Country (1952)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Ndotsheni, Natal. White farmers live in the fertile hills; Black old women and mothers with children scratch the bare soil in the valley - men and young women have gone to Johannesburg to find work. Reverend Stephen Kumalo receives a letter - not the long-awaited letter from son or brother but from Reverend Msimangu, asking him to come to Johannesburg, as his young sister Gertrud is sick. The money saved by Kumalo and his wife to send Absalom, their only son, to high school must pay for the trip.

James Jarvis, the White farmer, throws away the Johannesburg newspaper featuring his son Arthur shaking hands with a Black man, although Margaret, his wife, would have liked it. Concerned with her ill health, Jarvis turns down her plea not to evict Old William and family from his home - his son has failed to return for obligatory work on Jarvis's farm. Kumalo declines from intervening as he is unknown to Jarvis, but agrees to look for Old William's son and Sibego's daughter.

In an all-Black train compartment, workers point out gold mines in the hills, and approaching Johannesburg, apartment blocks for White people - "We live outside". In Johannesburg, a Black youth cheats Kumalo out of the price of a ticket to Sophiatown. Reaching the multi-racial mission, Kumalo learns from Msimangu that Gertrud's "sickness" is prostitution. He tries to get her and her child away from a shanty town. With Msimangu he visits his carpenter brother John, a gifted orator. John declaims against the ineffectiveness of the rich White Church in the face of fifty years of oppression; they are distressed that he let his son and Absalom leave home. Msimangu helps Kumalo follow Absalom's trail - to his workplace which he quit, to lodgings where he and his cousin were evicted for storing stolen goods, to a reformatory, from where he was released by social worker Martens to work and marry a sixteen-year old girl, pregnant with his child. Msimangu apologises after an outburst against seemingly intractable problems.

During an attempted burglary by three youths, Arthur Jarvis, noted advocate of the native cause, is shot dead. Kumalo and Martens, responsible for Absalom's premature release, fear that Absalom is the murderer. Kumalo and Msimangu discover that the police hunting the murderer are also following Absalom's trail. Arthur's parents arrive by plane. Day after day Jarvis sits at his son's desk, reading his analysis of the contradiction between Christian beliefs and treatment of Blacks and the social conditions leading to urban crime. At Arthur's funeral, Jarvis shakes hands with Black members of the congregation. Shaken that Arthur felt that his worthy parents failed to teach him about the country, he realises the importance of his son's work and learns to appreciate Margaret's understanding of it.

Martens tells Msimangu and Kumalo that Absalom has confessed to the murder. Stephen and John (whose son was an accomplice) visit their sons in prison with Martens. A mortified Absalom says he acted out of fear. John Kumalo plans to hire a lawyer to refute Absalom's evidence implicating his accomplices, eliciting Martens' contempt at his lack of brotherly concern. Kumalo, in a crisis of faith, is exhorted by Father Vincent to pray, even for white people "who would do justice if they were not afraid". Having refused to find a lawyer for Absalom, Martens, in a moment of frustration, comes to make amends.

Stephen Kumalo, in search of Sibego's daughter, encounters Jarvis, who shows no anger towards him when he confesses that it was his son who killed Arthur. In court, Absalom breaks down as he is sentenced to death. Msimangu confronts John Kumalo, triumphant at his son's release. Jarvis makes a donation to his son's Black youth club. Kumalo, returning with Absalom's pregnant wife, is welcomed with hymns by the village. In Church with its leaking roof, he receives news of Margaret's death. He sends a wreath. On the eve of Absalom's execution, as Kumalo climbs the mountain to await the dawn, Jarvis, on horseback, finds him and promises to build a new church. At sunrise Kumalo kneels, crying out: "Absalom".

The end titles anticipate "the dawn of emancipation from fear of bondage and the bondage of fear".