A comeback long in the making, a powerhouse film, and a story about how one man can make a difference against oppression. As long as he’s the white guy. (WARNING – graphic image from the film)
White rule in South Africa is fading, but not gone. Even as the people dare to envision apartheid’s final hours, a white teacher named Marty Strydom (Eric Stoltz) faces interrogation. Marty’s crime is hiding weapons; the charge is thin, but Colonel Kruger (Nigel Hawthorne) attacks it as a terrier might maul a juicy steak. As the weeks and months pass, Kruger tortures his prisoner physically and emotionally, all to a heartbreaking and inevitable end. Years later, the regime is gone and it’s Kruger’s turn in the victim’s chair. An investigator for the new government’s Truth Commission (Louis Gossett, Jr.) seeks Kruger’s confession and finally extracts some measure of vengeance in Marty’s name.
By the mid-90s, Arthur Penn had become anonymous. His most recent film—1989’s Penn & Teller Get Killed—had been a major misfire, and although he never officially retired, the standard assumption was that Penn had directed his last theatrical film. Over a 7-year period, the once-powerful Penn’s only film credits consisted of a saccharine TV upper (The Portrait), and a short contribution to Lumiere and Company, a film designed as a love letter to the movie industry that had left Penn behind.
Enter Lou Gossett, Jr. As South Africa changed governments, the actor began shopping an apartheid story by Bima Stagg (Death of a Snowman), a script to which Gossett held the rights and hoped to play the crucial investigator role. Penn’s name crossed Gossett’s desk, and although Penn’s brand had diminished, Gossett must have been happy to attach such a distinguished director to his prestige project. Even better, Penn’s background in TV anthologies made a great fit for Inside, a talky script anchored by a series of long, stagey scenes. The project was set up at the premium cable channel Showtime to be filmed on location in Johannesburg, but the studio had concerns about the 73-year-old Penn. An executive visited the set at the start of photography, checking on the studio’s investment. Penn shot 20 pages on the first day, and the executive didn’t show up for day two.
Inside premiered on Showtime in 1996, and was well enough received to earn a theatrical release, Penn’s last. It screened at the Toronto Film Festival, among others, and earned a few glowing reviews. Sadly, the film didn’t lead to more screen work for Penn, but it was his best reviewed film in at least fifteen years and provided a sweet closing note to a career filled with so much late sourness.
It’s hard to find a bigger issue than apartheid, the staggering South African policy of racial segregation and intimidation that officially ended with the 1994 elections. Penn saw Inside as a look at dying regimes, and how cruelty amplifies as those in power grow desperate to remain so, a theme that I can’t help but relate back to Penn’s heyday in the 1960s and the struggle for civil rights in the South.
Ironically, one criticism Inside faced was that it had made its points on apartheid “too late,” a criticism that appears empty and boneheaded today. Apartheid ended in 1994 and Inside came two years later. I suppose everything necessary had been said in those two years? Sorry, Mr. Penn, we beat racism. Dead issue. Everybody out of the pool. Wait, somebody should really tell the people making all of these holocaust movies that their relevancy window has slammed shut. The truth, of course, is that we were weary of apartheid at the time and eager to move on, but it’s a story that will never and should never be off limits. It happened, incredibly so, and as long as one person can hate another without reason, the lessons of our past should lie on the table, wide open and flipped to the relevant chapters.
After seven years vacation and a lifetime without a juicy script to shoot, a reinvigorated Arthur Penn appeared on the set of Inside. Penn delivers his best to every frame, but utilizes one of his nicest flourishes to shoot the cell block’s prisoners. Penn gives each man a peephole through which to look and speak, preventing us from seeing more than a prisoner’s eye or mouth at one time. This serves some plot function—hiding the identity of a special prisoner—but it also makes a statement on the imprisoned. Without freedom, they’re only pieces of men.
The trick works best when the unknown prisoner in Cell Q begs to bargain with Kruger. He swears to reveal the names and locations of the opposition leaders for his freedom. Kruger hesitates, but leans in, only to be greeted with a defiant, angry shout through the peephole.
“NELSON MANDELA—PRISON! STEVE BIKO—A MARTYR’S GRAVE!”
Inside has two major flaws, and I’m not happy about it. I would love to give the movie a total pass. It’s the best and most watchable movie so far on this list, and an important one in Arthur Penn’s career. This film was Penn’s final word in a long career of message movies, and he had one hell of a message.
Americans are supposedly slow to follow world politics. Bosnia? Too complicated. Somalia? Too obscure. We needed Don Cheadle to explain Rwanda. But apartheid? We get that one. It plays directly into our national identity. Apartheid was just slavery by another name—under apartheid, the state would only teach blacks skills that they “needed,” such as domestic servitude, and ignored skills they “didn’t,” like reading. We knew who was right and who was wrong, and we felt good when we condemned the bad guys, and rightly so. The true heroes are the men and women who fought and died for their freedom, but it can’t be ignored that western pressure made it tough for corporations to do business in South Africa, and when the money left the borders, it put apartheid wheezing on the ropes.
And so maybe it’s understandable, but not forgivable, that Inside frames its story of black oppression and cultural revolution in the trials and torture of a wealthy white man. Understandable because, well, that’s what we always do. Want to tell the story of the death of civil rights leader Medgar Evers? Cast Alec Baldwin. A racially-charged courtroom tale? Gregory Peck (or Matthew McConaughey).
The phenomenon is motived less by racism than money. The people who finance movies believe that films starring white people sell more tickets since, after all, white is still the American majority and the preference in many of the top foreign markets the studios are always chasing. This is why our civil rights movies tend to focus more on how hard it is for a white person to get other white people to shape up, casting the true victims as the side characters to be saved by their heroic protector.
You could make an argument that building Inside around the struggles of a white hero is necessary to its particular story. Marty, the white hero of the film, suffers perhaps more than anyone in the film because Kruger, a zealous patriot to the apartheid cause, sees him as a race traitor. Kruger understands black anger at the apartheid policies, but Marty? He’s already on the winning team. Marty’s opposition to apartheid makes less sense to Kruger and urges him to twist the knife harder and deeper. He gets off on killing Marty, probably because blacks are sub-human in his eyes. Marty, though? Marty is a person. For Kruger, he can get away with legal murder and still be called a hero.
I’m not sure that argument is compelling, but it’s there. The movie’s second crime has no defense. After spending the better part of the entire movie revealing the injustice in the white system, the very first thing the black majority does (represented by Louis Gossett, Jr.) is crusade against Kruger and pretty much do the exact same thing to him. Gossett argues with Kruger, terrorizes him, extracts a confession from him, and then, well let’s just say Kruger won’t be paying his rent next month. Does it feel good for the audience? Sure, but it’s all kinds of missing the point of the film it’s in. It’s equality of a sort, but maybe not the kind everybody wants.
This said, I still recommend Inside to the curious. It was Penn’s last film, and his best post-Missouri Breaks. Penn gives the film an intensity that brings it to life and allows his actors to elevate the material, especially Hawthorne who is brilliantly repulsive in the heavy role. It’s a shame Inside didn’t lead to more work, because Penn proves that when given an issue worth talking about, he still had considerable power to unleash. The script did him no favors, but with late-era Penn, you take what you can get.
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)
11. Dead of Winter (1987)
10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)
9. Inside (1996)