Six Feature Films About Apartheid

"Skin" and "Cry, Freedom" make this list

Just as a number of feature films have been made about the civil rights movement, many movies about South African apartheid have also hit the silver screen. They provide another way for audiences to learn about the racially segregated way of life practiced in South Africa for years.

Many of these films are based on the real life experiences of activists such as Nelson Mandela and Stephen Biko. Other films offer fictionalized accounts of South Africa. Collectively, they help to illuminate life in a racially stratified society for those unfamiliar with apartheid. 

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Videovision Entertainment. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” Poster

Based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” charts Mandela’s early years and adulthood as an anti-apartheid activist. Ultimately, Mandela spends 27 years in prison because of his activism. When he emerges from prison an old man, Mandela becomes South Africa’s first Black president in 1994.

The movie also delves into his personal life, depicting the troubles that his three marriages endured and how his imprisonment prevented Mandela from raising his children.

Idris Elba and Naomie Harris star.

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Invictus (2009)

"Invictus" movie poster. Warner Bros.

 “Invictus” is a sports drama with a twist. It takes place during the 1995 World Rugby Cup in a newly apartheid-free South Africa. Nelson Mandela had been elected the nation’s first Black president the previous year and strives to unite the country as South Africa prepares to host this international sporting event.

“Through rooting for a victory, ‘Invictus’ shows how Mandela became the real champion,” explained The Guardian. “Defensive Afrikaners were won over by Mandela’s support for what they saw as their sport, and steadily succumbed to his charm. Mandela’s energetic collaboration with the then-team captain Francois Pienaar was a move of remarkable vision and courage.”

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon star.

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Skin (2008)

"Skin" movie poster. Elysian Films

 This film chronicles the true life experiences of Sandra Laing, a woman with dark skin and kinky hair, born to two seemingly “White” parents in 1955 South Africa. Evidently Laing’s parents had African heritage they were unaware of, which resulted in them having a daughter who looks multiracial rather than White.

Despite Sandra’s appearance, her parents fight to have her classified as White, an uphill battle in the age of apartheid. While Sandra is legally categorized as White, society fails to treat her as such. She endures abuse in school and on dates with White peers.

Ultimately Sandra decides to embrace her “Black” roots, pursuing a relationship with a Black man. This decision creates fierce conflict between Laing and her father.

While “Skin” tells the story of one family during the apartheid era, it also highlights the futility of racial categories.

Sophie Okonedo and Sam Neill star.

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Cry, The Beloved Country (1995)

"Cry, The Beloved Country" movie poster. Alpine Pty Limited

 Based on the novel by Alan Paton, “Cry, The Beloved Country” chronicles a South African pastor from a rural area who springs into action after his son takes off to Johannesburg, only to become a criminal.

In Johannesburg, the Rev. Stephen Kumalo discovers that a number of his relatives are leading lives of ill-repute and that his brother, a believer-turned-atheist, supports violent action against the White rulers Blacks live under during apartheid.

The movie also chronicles a White landowner who travels to Johannesburg after his son, an activist who supported the civil rights of Blacks, is murdered.

James Earl Jones and Richard Harris star. 

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Sarafina (1992)

"Sarafina!" movie poster. BBC

 Based on the Broadway musical staged in the late 1980s, “Sarafina!” takes place during the 1970s as Nelson Mandela serves a 27-year jail sentence for his activism against apartheid. The film chronicles a student named Sarafina, who takes interest in the South African fight for racial equality when her teacher gives secret talks about racial oppression.

Inspired, young Sarafina decides to take action, but she must weigh her politics against other concerns. Her mother, for example, works for a White family and may be punished if word gets out that Sarafina is a political activist.

But Sarafina’s activism reaches a turning point after authorities jail her teacher for speaking out against apartheid and slays a boy she fancies. Sarafina becomes dedicated to the anti-apartheid movement but must decide if violence or peace is the best way to seek justice.

Whoopi Goldberg and Leleti Khumalo star. 

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Cry Freedom (1987)

"Cry Freedom" movie poster. Universal Pictures

This movie explores the real life interracial friendship between Stephen Biko, a Black anti-apartheid activist, and Donald Woods, a progressive White journalist, in 1970s South Africa.

When the authorities kill Biko in 1977 because of his political activism, Woods pursues justice by investigating the murder and publicizing what happened. For his actions, Woods and his family have to flee South Africa.

 Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline star.

Wrapping Up

While these films do not paint a complete picture of apartheid in South Africa, they help viewers unfamiliar with such a society better understand life in a racially stratified nation.