The opening sequence depicts a South African police raid on an illegal shanti-town. Quick cuts create a sense of chaos, panic and confusion as uniformed police bludgeon Africans who run in fear. Close up shots of a vicious barking police dog are juxtaposed against a terrified baby screaming in order to shock the responder. Other quick cuts reveal policeman raping women and assaulting black Africans who are not resisting. The following scene depicts a young woman listening to a radio broadcast which states the raid was peaceful, with many people returning to their home towns.
As the woman listens, her facial expression is one of contempt and anger for she knows this is false. A return to the shanti-town uses a panning shot as bulldozers demolish the township. And people are arrested and taken away. The music which accompanies this is a Zulu protest song which reaches crescendo as the camera seizes its pan. It stops on the poster depicting Stephen Biko, a black rights activist. In Donald Woods’ office a close up shot focuses on photographs of police brutality during the raid contradicting the official news. When asked if Woods will print them he relies defiantly “I’ll risk it”.
Clearly, Woods is an individual who does not believe in or support the Afrikaans government approach, making him an individual with different values, beliefs and attitudes to the wider white South African society. A close up on Woods as he declares Biko is building a wall of black hatred and prejudice and I will fight him establishes Woods’ character as a champion of humanity. However he has misinterpreted Biko’s philosophy and political agenda at the outset. Biko’s black consciousness means he wishes to end the perception of blacks that they are inferior to whites. However when he “put some of these houghts down on paper” he was immediately banned by the South African government merely for expressing a desire for equality.
The view of the government was that black Africans were subhuman and inferior to whites. “We know how you live, we cut your laws, we cook your food, we clean your house” combines an anaphora of we and your is an accumulation of alliterative verbs to emphasis the powerlessness of black Africans. Biko’s beliefs begin to challenge Woods’ views on black consciousness “We have to kill the idea that one man is superior to another man, we have to fill the black community with our pride”.
These declarations are made by Biko at an illegal gathering (a football match where Biko must stay hidden in the crowd) A wide angle shot of Biko surrounded by African man and women and children who all turn to him and listen attentively is used to emphasis his individual power to influence others and inspire them with black consciousness. Biko is giving the white people a choice to either fight violently and the blacks will fight them too or to come peacefully with an open palm. When assaulted by a policeman Biko asserts that “I just expect to be treated like you would”.
When the police officer strikes Biko, he immediately retaliates with violence, before explaining “we are just as weak as you are”. These actions are very brave as the police were capable of murder and Biko may have been beaten to death. Quick cuts from Biko’s frightened and anxious close up to the policeman’s close up, his face enraged, emphasized Biko’s danger. When Biko is on trial for breaching his banning order he is framed is a neutral angled mid shot and back lit with light falling on his shoulders and head suggesting he has been blessed by god.
The neutral angle conveys his humanness inviting us to identify with him. The camera switches to a low angle when the judge asks Biko if he thinks the white government is “doing any good”, the judge is in the foreground of the frame. Giving power and status to Biko is this scene as Biko says “the government does so good, there is so little to say about it”. Biko ends his speech by stating “our hope is to build up our own humanity, our own legitimate place in the world. This scene is immediately followed by a wide angled shot of police destroying the community center established by Biko.
Donald Woods go to Victoria to speak to the head chief of the police. Wide angle shots of the police chief’s praetorian mansion reveal the opulent splendor of white politicians in the Afrikaans government in contrast to the poverty of the black townships. The Afrikaans may have built the city but they built it using the Africans. A sequence where the security police raid Biko’s house and search for “illegal documents” reviles the extent of danger to Biko as an individual in a society which seeks to keep power and control in the hands of whites.
The police raid at night rather than in plain light which suggests they are pernicious motives as they are not prepared to search during the day. Low-key lighting casts shadows over the police symbolizing their corruption whilst the musical score is threatening in order to accentuate Biko’s peril. It is only by hiding his writing in the nappies of his son that Biko escapes persecution. The following sequence reviles how Donald Woods was also subject to police intimidation. Police attempt to harass his domestic helper when Woods intervenes. The officer refers to her as a Bantu female in a derogatory manor, scowling his distaste.
Woods points a pistol at the police declaring them to be intruders on his property. A low-angle camera shot of him leveling the weapon makes him appear imposing and powerful, a quick cut to the police shows them to be worried before Woods is again captured in a low-angle close-up reveling his rage at this attempted intimidation, he hurls am imperative at the departing officers “piss off” further evoking his power. Mupeka, an African minister and friend and supporter of Biko is kidnapped from the street by security police. A high-angle photograph reviles his wide eyed terror as he is bundled into a police car.
The following scene reviles Woods filmed from a high-angle and low-key lighting as he reviles Mupeka is dead. The angle reinforces the notion that Woods is powerless in the face of the violence and murder which the security police are prepared to use on anybody who threatens the power of the white Afrikaans government. Constantly reinforced in this film is the idea that there may be catastrophic consequences when individuals challenge the values and beliefs of a society. Biko knew that there are risks to going to Capetown because he knew that he would be breaking his banning order. When Biko was caught he would be put in jail before trial.
Biko would be beaten to death in the prisons because it is behind closed doors where the world couldn’t see him and it could be framed as a suicide attempt. The mis’ en scene which foreshadows Biko’s death at the hands of the security police conveys the full horror which comes from challenging those who hold power in a society which is determined to keep its power. A long shot of a lit corridor reveals two police officers making their way to the cells where political prisoners are beaten and tortured, they descend into darkness. The low key lighting casts shadow symbolising a lack of hope for those in these cells.
Harsh non-diegetic sound of locks opening and gates shutting emphasise the control the police have over their captives. The white teletex is accompanied by non-diegetic typewriter tapping which reports clinically and objectively the date Biko was given medical treatment. The camera pans from Biko’s foot along his naked body lying on the floor of a cell before resting on a mid-shot of his face twisted to the side. Shadows of bars across him symbolise his captivity while the swollen and mangled flesh on his face indicates he has received massive head injuries from the police.
His breathing is shallow and laboured/he is close to death. Low-angle shot looking up at the police conveys their power; their grim faces evoke their hatred and lack of compassion for Biko. Biko’s nakedness and prostrate symbolise his vulnerability while the doctor kneels over Biko pleading to get him to hospital quickly. Low-key lighting casts prison bar shadows over Biko and the doctor emphasising their being trapped by their circumstances while the police are virtually hidden by shadow symbolising their evil secrecy.
A high-pitched synthesised chord creates tension as the doctor demands Biko be taken to hospital to see a specialist. Maudlin strings accompany the police decision to drive “700 miles to Pretoria while a mid-shot of the doctor reviles him hanging his head in despair. A still-shot frames Biko’s face in closer as teletex and the non-diegetic typewriter give the date and announce “Steve Biko dies in custody”. This creates incongruity as Biko’s life is worth considerable grief and dismay yet the clinical and objective teletex message denies this.
The mis’ en scene of Biko’s wife and children grieving is a powerful reminder of the cost that individuals may suffer when they challenge a society. A wide-angle shot captures Biko’s wife sitting nursing his youngest child head aloft, eyes closed and tears running down her cheeks. She rocks her son who cries out for Daddy over and over. A Banatul hymn accompanies the scene whilst low-key lighting casts a shadow symbolising the despair and grief Biko’s death has caused. In contrast to the previous scenes where shadow from low key lighting abounds Johnny Kruger (police chief) is filmed from a low angled and bathed in a high key lighting.
His comments that Biko’s death in custody “leaves me cold” is met with applause. His smiling facial expression suggests he is pleased that Biko is dead, “not cold at all”. His deliration that “he died after a hunger strike” is filmed from a long shot creating distance between him and the responder. A close up on Donald Wood’s wife begins the campaign of police harassment against his family/she is called a “black loving bitch” and is threatened with “we are coming to get you”, clearly audible over the receiver.
A hand held camera jerkily captures the panic and the excruciating pain of Woods’ youngest child who has put on a t-shirt laced with acid. Her screams reverberate around the room as the acid burns her face torso and arms, the security police have deliberately targeted Woods’ family and now his young children just as Bob Ewell attempted to stab Jem and Scout. These actions are despicable but demonstrate the lengths those in society will resort to, to preserve their values and beliefs which keep them in power. A mid-shot of Woods’ son, also burned, reveals him crying and afraid.
Significantly, this attack persuades Wood’s wife that Donald needs to escape South Africa to publicize Biko’s death. This is a courageous decision as she knows her family will be vulnerable. A mid-shot of Wood’s wife comforting her daughter as bright slight shines on their face is used to symbolize the purity and goodness of those who stand up to threats and intimidation. A mid-shot of Biko saying “they are kids, they may shout, break a few windows” foreshadows the violence of the school children’s protest which closes the film.