Cry Freedom is a film that was shot in Zimbabwe in 1987 and featured Hollywood star Denzel Washington and one of the assistant directors was Stephen Chigorimbo. It was based on the story of the late South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Bantu Biko and Denzel was simply known as Steve Biko. It was directed by Richard Attenborough.[1]


Woods was a white South African journalist whose activism against apartheid led him to clash with the government and he was forced to flee the country due to persecution. Given his background and the political climate across the Limpopo, Wood’s planned film could not be done in South Africa. Zimbabwe became a convenient choice following the success of “King Solomon’s Mines”. Chigorimbo and director of the film Richard Attenborough came to Harare to set groundwork and the Government supported the film financially as it resonated with Zimbabwe’s backing to the fight against apartheid in South Africa.



The premise of Cry Freedom is based on the true story of Steve Biko, the charismatic South African Black Consciousness Movement leader who attempts to bring awareness to the injustice of apartheid, and Donald Woods, the liberal white editor of the Daily Dispatch newspaper who struggles to do the same after Biko is murdered. In 1972, Biko was one of the founders of the Black People's Convention working on social upliftment projects around Durban. The BPC brought together almost 70 different black consciousness groups and associations, such as the South African Student's Movement (SASM), which played a significant role in the 1976 uprisings, and the Black Workers Project, which supported black workers whose unions were not recognised under the apartheid regime. Biko's political activities eventually drew the attention of the South African Government which often harassed, arrested, and detained him. These situations resulted in his being 'banned' in 1973. The banning restricted Biko from talking to more than one person at a time, in an attempt to suppress the rising anti-apartheid political movement. Following a violation of his banning, Biko was arrested and later killed while in the custody of the South African Police (the SAP). The circumstances leading to Biko's death caused worldwide anger, as he became a martyr and symbol of black resistance. As a result, the South African Government 'banned' a number of individuals (including Donald Woods) and organisations, especially those closely associated with Biko. The United Nations Security Council responded swiftly to the killing by later imposing an arms embargo against South Africa. After a period of routine harassment against his family by the authorities, as well as fearing for his life, Woods fled the country after being placed under house arrest by the South African Government. Woods later wrote a book in 1978 entitled Biko, exposing police complicity in his death. That book, along with Woods's autobiography Asking For Trouble, both being published in the United Kingdom, became the basis for the film.


Principal filming took place primarily in the Republic of Zimbabwe (formerly called, up until April 1980, Southern Rhodesia) because of the tense political situation in South Africa at the time of shooting. Sir Richard Attenborough was later criticised for filming in Zimbabwe while the Gukurahundi genocide was underway. In his autobiography, Entirely Up to You, Darling, Attenborough wrote that he didn't know about the repression taking place, but castigated President Robert Mugabe for seizing white-owned farms after 2000.

Other filming locations included Kenya, as well as film studios in Shepperton and Middlesex, England. The film includes a dramatised depiction of the Soweto uprising which occurred on 16 June 1976. Indiscriminate firing by police killed and injured hundreds of black African schoolchildren during a protest march.

Set up and location

The director brought Denzel and a few other actors to Zimbabwe and the making of the movie began. It was shot in Gweru, Bulawayo, Mutare, Harare, Mufakose and Chitungwiza. Chigorimbo became assistant director.


  • Socialite Angela Gavaza(R.I.P.) as Shabeen Queen’s Niece
  • Denzel Washington as Steve Biko
  • Kevin Kline as Donald Woods
  • Penelope Wilton as Wendy Woods
  • Alec McCowen as British Acting High Commissioner
  • Kevin McNally as Ken Robertson
  • Ian Richardson as State Prosecutor
  • John Thaw as Jimmy Kruger
  • Timothy West as Captain De Wet
  • Josette Simon as Dr. Mamphela Ramphele
  • John Hargreaves as Bruce Haigh
  • Miles Anderson as Lemick
  • Zakes Mokae as Father Kani
  • John Matshikiza as Mapetla


The film was nominated and won several awards in 1987–88. Among awards won were from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the Berlin International Film Festival and the Political Film Society.


  1. Godwin Muzari, [1], The Herald, Published: 18 November, 2016, Accessed: 10 July, 2020