A Dry White Season

Published on 10/08,2009

A Dry White Season shows that sometimes, no matter what the cost and no matter how futile it may seem one must take action to oppose injustice. The film explores the personal cost of resisting social injustice that is accepted by one's community and maintained by a brutal dictatorship. The movie is well served as an introduction to the now abandoned apartheid system of South Africa, the Special Branch (secret police), economic and political oppression of the townships (Bantu System), and the arguments used to justify apartheid. (Www.teachwithmovies.org. Date accessed: 5 October 2009)The story begins when a janitor at Ben's school, a black man named Gordon, seeks his help while investigating the death of his son. Like many South African whites, Ben refuses to get involved in the racial divides that have been tearing the country apart, thinking that Gordon's claims against the white minority government are unfounded. Things change when Ben sees firsthand the brutality by his own race against blacks, particularly when he sees the dead body of Gordon at the morgue not long after being tortured at the hands of the secret, corrupt government police. Gordon's wife, Emily, is also killed later, and also under suspicious circumstances.Upset by this turn of events, Ben retains Ian Mackenzie (Marlon Brando), a human rights attorney, to assist him with the case. Ben's political awakening is so complete by this time that his crusade to bring those responsible for the deaths of Gordon and his family members eventually take their toll on his own family. Eventually, Ben Du Toit pays the ultimate price for standing up to a corrupt government, standing up for basic human rights and equality. He pays with his own life, which was allegedly lost in a car accident. (www.rottentomatoes.com. Date accessed: 5 October 2009)In the film it can be noted that some of the cast members were not South African but American. The period in which the film was produced was during apartheid, the fact that American actors played in the film shows that they wanted to create awareness across the world about the injustices of apartheid. In this paper we will explore how the film answers these following questions questions: 1) How does the film indicate how the privilege of whiteness prepetuates "ignore-ance" of positionality relative to other social groups? 2) Scholars in whiteness studies say that it is essential to engage in self reflexivity in order to overcome "blindnesses".  Discuss how this is played out for different characters in the film. 3) Discuss how the film illustrates the construction and consequences of being a race traitor and refusing to participate in the project of group solidarity. And he last question, 4) Are there parallels between what the film explores and whiteness in post-apartheid South Africa?  Explain what you see to be the similarities and differences.  

  1. How does the film indicate how the privilege of whiteness prepetuates "ignore-ance" of positionality relative to other social groups?

If there are a few common threads that can be said to tie together the multiple facets of multiculturalism they would probably be the struggle to assert multiple identities, and to both understand and rearticulate the representations that are constitutive of and that bring meaning to these identities. Henceforth, a critical understanding of the complex identity politics that interplay between different subjectivities and the texts that help to construct them must ground any discussion on rearticulating multicultural education. Multiculturalism is about how a society defines itself, which identities get valorized and, perhaps most importantly, who has the power to speak and define these identities. This definition speaks directly to the social, economic and political dimensions of multiculturalism. At the core of the multicultural project is the canonical debate over knowledge. This debate is often contested around the question of whose narratives and social experiences get validated in the curriculum (O’Neal Harewood. 2007:114).


“In her highly acclaimed text, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, 2004. Morrison asserts, deep within the word “American” is its association with race. To identify someone as a South African is to say very little; we need the adjective ‘white’ or ‘Black’ or ‘colored’ to make our meaning clear. In this country it is quite the reverse. American means white, and Africanist people struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen.  To find evidence to support Morrison’s contention that the American identity has been historically constructed as white, one needs not look far to seek out narratives that illustrate how the acculturation process played out in United States. For instance, the downright persecution of “minorities” who showed resistance to the assimilation process provides clarity on how the American identity was conceptualized by the dominant cultural group; thus, “whiteness” has always been perceived by the cultural majority as the preferred cultural identity to which all “others” should acquiesce. However, given the complex history and pluralistic nature of the US society, it is fitting to ask, what do “we” mean when we say “we” are American? Is place of birth or origin prerequisites for an American identity? How does ‘race,’ social class, gender and sexual orientation factor into conceptions of an American identity? What are the necessary requirements for classification as an American? These questions are extremely important especially because both nation and nationality serve as key determinants of identity and affiliation, and are at the root of the US identity politics (O’Neal Harewood. 2007:117).

2.  Scholars in whiteness studies say that it is essential to engage in self reflexivity in order to overcome "blindnesses".  Discuss how this is played out for different characters in the film. 

Before any person can attempt at making a difference in someone else’s life, it is important for them to look at their own values and priorities. In the Peck article he states that ‘”whiteness” is defined as the “absence of color” so that “not seeing color” means seeing everyone as “white”’ (peck, 1993: 93).In the case of this film which is set in the horrific heights of apartheid, the characters are separated by race. The film depicts the inhumane treatment of black South Africans by the minority white government. The main white character Ben is shown to make a choice to either support or reject the norms of a discriminatory regime. This character is forced to assess what fundamental issues are important to him. He takes a step back and observes the situation and then decides on his personal action. Ben as a white man can identify that the treatment of black people is a human rights violation and he can empathise with them. He is able to overcome the ‘racial obligation’ of white people and he does not fall into the trap of having the mentality of thinking black people as being any less than white people. Ben overcomes the blindness and is able to make a difference in the lives of the black people that he came to respect as equals.


It is clear that in the film white is the dominant group. When a dominant discourse is in place such as whiteness it starts to be seen as ‘common sense’ as well as ‘natural’ (Peck, 1993: 93). Also it is said (as explained in the Peck article) that race is something natural, it ‘appears to be “given” by nature, racism is one of the most profoundly ‘naturalized’ of existing ideologies’ (Peck, 1993: 93). We also see that even though these ideologies are seen as natural by the dominant group, there are however, shown by Ben in the film, some ideologies that ‘are susceptible to challenge because of “differences in position, experience and interests between social groupings’ (Peck, 1993: 93). Ben has overcome his blindness by realising the real situation whereby whites are taking advantage of their power given to them as the dominant group and using it against the “black race”.


One of the other characters that overcome racial blindness is Stanley. In one scene he casually walks into Ben’s house on Christmas day and retaliates to racial slurs by calling one of the white men a ‘fucking Boer’. He is aware of the consequences that this action could bring to him, however he is willing to risk his life (and that was a reality, he could very well have been killed for making such a comment) to show that he feels he should be able to get equal respect. In a later scene he drives up and shoots a white man in full view of the public. Stanley’s brave actions show that he is also reflecting on himself and his situations, yet is not willing to accept the terms been laid upon him. He wants to be on an ‘equal footing’ with the white men and through reflection on his life he chooses not to adhere to the behaviour that was expected of him.


Johan, Ben’s son could be seen as the biggest advocate for overcoming blindness. He inherently does not adopt the ‘white view’ and is strong in his choice to stay with his dad when Ben’s wife leaves. Johan is shown in the opening scene to be playing happily with Jonathan. He does not see a ‘black’ boy; he merely sees friends, a companion, and another boy just like him. It can be argued that Johan doesn’t necessarily overcome blindness but rather is born with 20/20 vision of how people should react to one another. In another scene when Ben gets angry with Stanley and pushes him to the ground, it is Johan who pulls his dad off the black Stanley clearly recognising that it is not right to attack people, even if it is not malicious.

  3.  Discuss how the film illustrates the construction and consequences of being a race traitor and refusing to participate in the project of group solidarity. 

Ben is the Race traitor in the film. He goes beyond what is allowed for a white man to do, he goes beyond the ethical line set out by other white people when he (Ben) helps black people. According to the article written by Barbara Flagg, she suggests that there is something called the ‘transparency phenomenon’ (Flagg, 1997: 65). This is when whites do not realise that they are white, they do not ‘see’ that they are whites and therefore do not take into account their norms and behaviours which shape them. ‘Transparency often is the mechanism through which white decision makers who disavow white supremacy impose white norms on blacks’ (Flagg, 1997: 65). We believe that Ben being called a race traitor is linked to this definition of racism whereby the whites believe they are right and they have the right to be right, and whoever goes against them is a traitor.


One of the first scenes shows Gordon getting very upset with his son Jonathan for taking part in group demonstrations. Gordon makes it very clear that he doesn’t want his son to get a criminal record. He explains to his son that if he continues to take part in the protests he is damaging his future. Gordon constructs a fear in his son that if he stood up for what was important then (not being taught in Afrikaans) it would ultimately lead to the consequence of ending up in prison. Despite Jonathan thinking he was helping his people for a worthy cause, his father realises that going against what their group (black people) was expected to accept, would cause more trouble than good. This is proven correct as he ends up being killed in the riots.


Ben realizes that his society is built on a pillar of injustice and exploitation.

Jonathan, who happened to be the son of his Gardener, is arrested and subsequently killed by the Police while allegedly trying to escape. This sudden death arouses his suspicions, he decides to probe into this matter and ensure that no one gets away with murder. Little does he realize that soon he will be labelled a 'traitor' by people of his very own race. (www.imdb.com. Date accessed: 5 October 2009).


Arguably one of the biggest consequences of being a race traitor, shown in the film is Ben losing his family because he chooses to support black people. His wife leaves him because she feels he is going against their race and betraying them. She gives the impression that she feels that Ben is picking the black people over his family. He is however willing to stand up for his beliefs regardless of what other white people call or do to him. He also puts his life at risk. The one scene shows how the white police plant a bomb in the shed where he keeps the ‘papers’ that are crucial in exposing the injustice of the many killings that took place. His loyalty to doing the right thing leaves him with many consequences. In another act of betrayal due to him being a ‘traitor’, his own daughter ploys to get the papers from him and hand it to authorities. This personal betrayal is another one of the consequences that Ben faces in his attempt at having justice served.

4.  Are there parallels between what the film explores and whiteness in post-apartheid South Africa?  Explain what you see to be the similarities and differences. 

Whiteness as a modernist construction depended mainly on the ideological fixing of a Manichean allegory, using and adapting various discourses available at the time (Steyn, 2001:151). It utilised the Enlightenment ideas of universal progress and it established “scientifically” the white race as superior (Steyn, 2001:151). Whiteness during the time of apartheid was based “on the neutralisation of whiteness as a norm against which others are judged.” (Peck, 1993:94)  Those who were not white were referred to as non-white and experienced exclusion. A change in the flow of cultural information in the new South Africa has opened the channel for white South Africans to know about African ways from Africans, allowing for differences in beliefs and views to be seen as different beliefs rather than opposing beliefs (Steyn, 2005:152). The film demonstrates how political power was in the hands of the white minority. The government was white, the magistrates, the police heads, anyone of political importance was white. White people also have the economic power, as the movie demonstrates. Ben and his family lived in a descent suburb with a modest home whereas Gordon and his family lived in a small house in Soweto, one of South Africa’s biggest townships. The economic divide was so deep that Stanley had to brace Ben before they entered Soweto. The poverty was apparent where as the affordability and wealth was present in the white community.


The parallels between the old apartheid South Africa depicted in the movie and the new South Africa lie in the control of economic power. Although BEE has been able to establish small elite of black South Africans and a rising black middle class, the mass black population still lives in poverty. Business and Companies are still predominately owned by white South Africans. This is something that is parallel to the apartheid era. The political control has managed to cross hands to the black majority.


In conclusion we have provided this paper with an insight into the film: A Dry White Season, with this we have answered the following questions within the paper. We have focused on how this film has touched on issues such as colour blindness, racism, and the effects of it on people’s lives within the period of Apartheid.

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