Just when you thought Hotel Rwanda had rendered obsolete the sort of neocolonial uplift that investigates black trauma through a white person’s eyes, along comes In My Country. It’s set in South Africa in 1996, and, as directed by John Boorman, it’s like a Richard Attenborough film made for the Lifetime channel. Boorman dramatizes the actions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was formed by Nelson Mandela to investigate human rights abuses under apartheid. Its mission wasn’t to mete out punishment; it was to create a public setting in which victims of the Afrikaner regime could confront the officers who’d tortured and killed their relatives.
Boorman creates affecting and tense moments in the commission room. As stories of atrocity unfold — a boy’s hands cut off, a man’s genitals tied with wire before he is given electroshock — the victims’ relatives howl in agony, and the men who committed the crimes stare and say, ”I was just following orders.” After a while, though, you notice that none of the relatives are allowed to become characters. Instead, In My Country hinges on the friendship, and rather starchy romance, of Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche), an Afrikaans poet and journalist, and Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson), a testy Washington Post reporter. The movie is the story of Anna’s enlightenment — how she confronts her denial of any connection to the brutal government under which she prospered. In My Country, in other words, doesn’t so much explore as use the tragedy of black South Africa to give its heroine a righteous slap of nobility.