Based on two books by Donald Woods and directed by Richard Attenborough, a white editor of a newspaper in South Africa gets to know Steve Biko, who teaches black consciousness as a way to liberate Africans in South Africa, and struggles to tell his story.
On November 24, 1975 at Crossroads Settlement in Cape Province of South Africa black Africans live in poor circumstances. A poster in a house shows Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC). A boy alerts people that trucks are arriving, and people flee in terror. Policemen with dogs and clubs beat people.
A woman turns on a radio and hears the news that police raided the settlement and are returning many people to their homelands.
Bulldozers destroy the houses of the settlement, and people pick through the wreckage. A photo of Steve Biko is put up.
In a hospital Dr. Ramphele (Josette Simon) tells a nurse that if they had captured Steve, they would have heard. A black woman says that her friend Peter would have phoned her.
In a newspaper office Ken (Kevin McNally) shows photos to editor Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) who says he will take care of Stephen Biko in an editorial.
Dr. Ramphele reads the editorial and goes to the newspaper office and meets with Woods. She knows he is not one of the worst, but she asks him why he is trying to pass off “vicious fiction” as reasoned fact. He says he has opposed white prejudice, but he is not going to tolerate black prejudice either. She says that is not what Steve is about. He says Biko is building a wall of black hatred and will oppose him. She says he is putting words in his mouth, and he is banned and can not speak freely. She challenges Woods to go and see Biko. She says she was one of two who got a scholarship to Natal Medical School. She says he is uninformed because Biko is one of the few who can still save South Africa. She tells him where his banning area is.
Woods drives a car and parks on Leopold Street in King William’s Town. He goes to a church and knocks. Steve’s wife Ntsiki Biko (Juanita Waterman) welcomes him and says Steve is expecting him. She shows him their community center where people are working on art, sewing, and other projects. She says he will find him in the backyard. He joins Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) in another building, and he explains that he is not aloud to meet with more than one person at a time and that the police are across the street. He assumes that Woods approves of his banning; but Woods says he does not, though he considers him dangerous. Steve says a white liberal who claims his advantages is not the person most qualified to tell blacks how they should respond to apartheid. Woods turns it around, and Steve says it is a charming idea. He shakes hands and says he has wanted to meet him.
Woods drives his car with Biko who says they think they follow him everywhere. They stop at a clinic for black people staffed by black people. Biko shows him around and says the only history they had was written by the white men. He says they grow most of their own food. He came to realize what the Afrikaners were doing to them. His mistake was that he put his ideas down on paper. Woods says he accused Biko of being a racist. Biko asks how old he is, and Woods says he is 41. Biko asks if he ever spent time in a black township. He says only the police know how they live, and he says he will show Woods how they live. They have to be off the streets by six at night.
In a large yard Wendy Woods (Penelope Wilton) finds Donald in the swimming pool, and he tells her about his visit with Biko. He says he is impressive, and he has agreed to let him take him to a black township.
Dr. Ramphele warns Biko not to get caught being outside his banning area with Woods, but he says he won’t get caught. He tells them how he will slip out while someone sits in his seat.
In the evening Woods rides in a car with several blacks. He says he is enjoying his days of white privilege while he can.
Biko and Woods walk in a township, and Biko tells him how desperate the kids are. Woods asks if the kid is like he was a few years ago. Biko says they only get the education the whites give them. When they see the whites’ houses, they feel something is wrong. Even a smart black child will die in poverty.
Biko is dancing with a black woman, and at a table Woods asks if most Shebeen queens are informers. The man says they like Steve, and so they are okay there. Woods asks where Biko got his education that made him so articulate. He is told he went to a mission school and has always been articulate. Biko tells Woods that most of them have no work permit and no residence permit. They split up black families, and some husbands and wives do not see each other more than once a year. Woods asks him not to blame all the whites. He is asked how many live-in maids he has, and Woods says one. They talk about education. Biko says he will not be what the whites want him to be. Mapetla (John Matshikiza) explains what they want, and his wife Tenjy (Wabei Siyolwe) says they got some things right that the whites never solved. Woods says they had tribal wars, and Biko says the Europeans had two world wars. He says their genius is that they have convinced most of them of their truth.
Woods brings Tenjy and Mapetla to the newspaper office and introduces them as on the staff now. Ken asks Woods where they are going to work, and he says in the newsroom. Ken says they will rant about black consciousness, and he laughs.
At a football game Woods and Ken take a seat in the stands and listen to a black making a speech about why they must stick together as one people. People applaud. He introduces a speaker and asks them to listen to him. People hear his voice say that this is the biggest illegal gathering he has ever seen. They are struggling to kill the idea that one kind of men is better than others. Biko says they have to teach each other about their black culture and black heroes. Then they can stand up to the whites with an open hand. They can all build a South Africa for equals as beautiful as its land and themselves. People cheer.
Biko is interrogated by police officials, and he tells them not to make the mistake of treating him without respect. Captain De Wet (Timothy West) comes in and orders him not to tell him what to do. He says he was inciting racial hatred. Biko says he will not send him to a Pretoria court on evidence from a paid informer. De Wet says Biko is poison, and he is going to see him put away. Biko says he cannot on that kind of testimony. De Wet slaps him as he is being held. When they let go of him, Biko slaps De Wet. Two men grab him, and Biko says he expects to be treated as De Wet expects to be treated. He asks them what they are afraid of. He says his people are just as weak and human as they are. De Wet says they will catch him red-handed one day.
In a courtroom a prosecutor asks Biko about his words. He says he believes that South Africa is a plural society with contributions from all its parts. The state prosecutor (Ian Richardson) asks him if he is familiar with the documents in question. He asks about the one that notices the “naked terrorism of the government,” and he asks if that is a valid statement. Biko says it is more valid than what he and the others are being charged. He talks about the indirect violence in the townships that constitutes more terrorism than the men being charged there. The prosecutor quotes his statement that their true leaders are imprisoned on Robben Island, and he asks who he means. Biko mentions Mandela and Mbeki. The prosecutor asks if the common factor is that they advocated violence against the South African government; but Biko says the common factor is that they selflessly pushed forward the struggle of black people. Biko says their movement seeks to avoid violence. The prosecutor says they seek confrontation, but Biko says they are in confrontation now but without violence. The judge says their documents never say anything about the good the South African governments does, and Biko says it does so little it is not worthy of comment. The judge asks if that approach inflames racial hatred, and Biko says they are aware of their hardship and want to stop accepting them and confront them. They need to develop hope for themselves and their country. He says that is what black consciousness is about—their own humanity and their legitimate place in the world.
At night men in black masks with clubs come into the community center and smash things. Outside De Wet takes off his mask.
Dr. Ramphele and others clean up and talk as Woods watches and listens. Wendy suggests that Woods fly to Pretoria because the local police will only laugh at him.
Woods arrives at a grand estate and is welcomed by the Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger (John Thaw) who gives him a drink. They sit down, and Woods says it concerns Steve Biko. Kruger says their country has a special problem. He does not like banning people. He says the Afrikaners came there in 1652 and trekked across the wilderness, homesteaded, and were put in concentration camps by the British. They built cities. He says they did not colonize the land but built it. He says they will not give all that up. He says they did not force anyone to labor. Woods says they took over most of the land and exploit their cheap labor. Kruger says they can learn to work and live together. He says Biko gives them false expectations. They go outside and sit in the shade. Kruger says he will consider meeting Biko. Woods says the community center was smashed up, and Kruger says his police are investigating. Woods says the police did it. Kruger asks if the witness will testify, but Woods says he is afraid. The minister says he does not want thugs in his department.
Wendy answers the door, and an official asks Donald if he made a complaint to the police. He says yes. The official asks the name of the witness he mentioned and says he must name him, or he will go to prison until he does. Woods says he does not want to have to go back to Mr. Kruger. The official says he has instructions from the top, not Kruger. Woods tells them to have a warrant next time and closes the door.
Blacks are playing rugby, and Biko sees Woods and his car. He asks Woods what he expected. Woods talks with Biko and says they are trying to break up their friendship. Biko says some time in prison may be what he needs. Woods says he has a lawyer and will not name the witness. Biko says many will die if their political system turns them into black versions of theirs. Biko says a bent policeman breaks heads to substitute a black one for a white and is not worth the price of one child or Woods in jail for six months. They laugh.
At night three men knock on a door, and Biko opens the door a little. A man says they have orders to search the premises. Biko asks if they have a warrant and tells them to bring it to the window so he can read it. He gives his wife a paper to hide in the baby’s diaper. Biko opens the window and reads the document, and he says they will not find such papers in his house. He opens the door, and the three men start searching and leave without finding anything. The official says they will be back.
Woods tells his sons about his trial and how his lawyer defended him. They hear the dogs barking, and Wendy says they are after Evalina. Woods gets a pistol, goes outside, and asks the police why they are there. The policeman says he wants to see her passbook, and Woods reprimands him for calling her a “Bantu female.” Woods says they are on his property, points his pistol at him, and calls them intruders in his backyard. They leave. Wendy tells him he is mad, and he says he was shaking like a leaf.
Ken eats ice cream and talks with a woman. He sees a black man being arrested and takes pictures.
Woods tells Wendy he is afraid they may use him as an example. He answers the door, and Biko comes in. Woods tells Wendy that he heard about Mapetla. Biko says he is going to Cape Town and will drop by something he hopes he will publish. Woods says he is out of his mind. Biko says there is an important meeting of black students there, and he wants them to hear what he says before they take a stand.
On a street Tenjy has been arrested, and Woods tells the police that he will print the news of her arrest on the front page.
At night in his office Woods tells a friend that Mapetla is dead; they claimed he hanged himself. He says they will remake the front page.
Biko calls Woods at home and tells him that before Mapetla died, the police showed another prisoner a puppet of Mapetla hanging from a string. Biko hopes that someday justice will be done, and they hang up. Ntsiki tells Biko he must not go to Cape Town because it is too dangerous.
On August 18, 1977 at night police stop a car and ask Biko and another man for their papers. An officer has Biko get out of the car and asks for his papers and is shown them. He demands that Biko say his name, and he does.
At night on September 11 two policeman accompany a doctor to a jail cell, and he examines Biko’s naked body. The doctor says he should be seen by a specialist because of a possible lesion on the brain. The policeman asks if he could be shamming, but the doctor says no. They also found red blood cells in his spinal cord, and it indicates serious damage. He asks if he has eaten, and the policeman says not today. The policeman says they will take him to a police hospital so that he cannot escape, and the doctor goes out.
Police carry Biko and put him in a police wagon. They travel fast on a bumpy road. On September 12 Biko dies in police custody in Pretoria.
Blacks sing, and Ntsiki mourns at night.
At a political rally Kruger says that Biko’s death leaves him cold because he died after a hunger strike.
Woods meets with Ntsiki and hugs her. She gets in his car with Ken, and he drives to a mortuary. She asks how he got permission, and he says he didn’t because it would have tipped them off.
Inside the director says there has been no inquest. Woods says the law says the next of kin has the right to see the deceased and warns him of a front-page story. They are shown Biko’s body, and Ntsiki cries, asking what they did to him. She goes out with the director, and Ken takes pictures from various angles of his whole body.
In the car Ntsiki asks Woods to come to the funeral, and he asks if they will be welcome. She says that he and Wendy are their brother and sister.
Thousands of people have gathered and sing, and some hold up pictures of Biko. The coffin on a cart is pulled by an ox. Then six men carry it in front of the procession. Woods and Wendy are in the crowd. A black leader speaks about Steve Biko and their cause that is attempting to change the hated system to a society of friendship and justice. They sing the anthem “Nikosi Sikelel iAfrika,” and Woods explains what the words mean to his daughter Jane Woods (Kate Hardie).
Wendy in bed watches TV news that shows Kruger saying that Biko was on a hunger strike and that they tried to feed him. She answers the phone, and a voice says they are coming to get her. She hangs up, and Jane comes in and says she can’t sleep. They talk about the threats from the police. Jane suggests they tape record them and print what they say in the paper. Wendy says there would have to be many blanks. Wendy goes to the window and tells Jane to stay there. Wendy goes down the stairs, and they hear five gunshots.
The next day in the front Jane finds another bullet, and a son says one went through Wendy’s window. A retired policeman tells them that he will prove that police did this.
At night by a pool Woods tells the ex-policeman and others that they are going to force them to have an inquest. He says a lecture tour in the United States will stir up pressure. Father Kani (Zakes Mokae) warns him. Woods says Kruger lied, and to expose it they have to show why Biko died. He is not afraid because more publicity makes him safer.
At an airport Woods shows his passport and is stopped by a man from security who says he will not be on the flight. In an office a man tells him that he has been declared a banned person for five years. He is not allowed to associate with more than one person at a time except his immediate family. He is forbidden to write anything that is published, and he is restricted to East London.
The Cape Times reports that Biko supporters have been silenced.
In a car Woods tells two men that he saw Biko’s body and that the pictures they took have been spread to many newspapers. He says things are going to change in one way or another. He hopes they can do it without violence.
Woods looks out his window and talks with Father Kane who says that if he is caught smuggling out what Woods wrote, they both could get what Nelson Mandela got. Kane suggests he leave South Africa with the manuscript. Woods tells Wendy that they have to leave. Bruce has found him a publisher in England, and the government will see his book as treason. She asks him to listen to what she wants to do, and they argue. She asks what they are going to do with five children when they cannot take any money with them. She says he is using Steve’s death as an excuse.
Woods joins Wendy on the beach, and she apologizes. He admits he wants a book published. He says what happens if they let Steve die for nothing, and she asks who he is. She says they may get killed or thrown in prison trying to escape. He says they know what this country is like now, and they have to do what they can.
A mail man delivers a package, and they find Biko t-shirts. When a boy puts one on, he starts screaming. Donald carries him to the kitchen sink, and they try to wash off the poison.
That night Wendy says she got a call from Don who said he has proof that the security police sent the t-shirts. She says the book should be published.
Woods climbs over his wall and runs to a man who drives him in a car. He gives him a passport with the name Father David C. Curran that Father Kane lifted. Woods says it may work. They stop to look at a map. The man says they cannot fly him to Botswana. He says Kane will meet him and drive him to the border of Lesotho where he can wade across at night. Woods says he will regret giving him his biggest scoop. He says he will hitch-hike so that if he is caught, he will not take Kane and Wendy down with him.
Kane and Woods talk in a park about the escape plan. Kane says if he makes it and calls, Wendy will take the children north to the border before they can pick her up; if he does not make it, she turns around and goes home. Woods says they will suspect Kane if he makes it; but Kane says they will need proof.
On New Year’s Eve the family gets in the car with Wendy. She says dad will not be at the party.
At home Woods makes his hair look older, and Wendy talks to him. She blow-dries his hair and embraces him. He kisses her and wishes her a happy new year. Wendy sees a black police officer across the street, and Donald wearing a priest’s collar says they are predictable. They go downstairs, and Donald hugs Jane in the kitchen. Wendy says she is going to pick up a projector. Woods gets in the back of their car in the garage and lies down. Wendy opens the garage door and sees the black policeman.
She drives the car and goes into town. Woods gets out and reminds her to pick up the projector. She drives off, and he sees trucks of troops going by.
Woods remembers talking to Biko who talks about the risks he has to take.
A man stops and picks up Woods, and they speak Dutch.
At home the Woods family is watching a movie.
Woods gets a ride with a black man and says he is going towards Queenstown. By 9:25 he is 360 miles from Maseru. He asks to be let off in Stutterheim, but they are going through King William’s Town first.
A judge reads the findings of the court that Biko’s death is not attributed to any criminal act.
In King William’s Town blacks get on the back of the truck, and Woods yells at them until they get off.
Wendy and the family celebrate the new year.
A policeman opens the back of a police truck and tells him they can take him toward Queenstown. They stop, and a black man is put in the back with him. The policeman asks if he still wants to go past Queenstown.
Biko debates with the judge what colors they call each other. The judge says that blacks are more brown, and he says the whites are more pink.
Wendy sits up in the kitchen.
At night Woods gets out of a larger truck. Kane says he expected him three hours ago and tells him to get in. Woods does so and says how scared he has been.
At 5:20 in the morning Kane and Woods stand by a rushing river. He is not crossing because he will not be met until ten, and he tells Kane to go. They say goodbye.
Wendy plays piano.
Woods is wading across the river with a bag on his head at six. Woods is sitting by a fire, and a black man says there will be places to cross tonight. Woods asks if someone he trusts with a car can take him across. He says he has a false passport. The man says he has a car and laughs.
The man drives Woods in his old car on a dirt road. He parks the car in the country, and Woods sees the river and says when things have changed, he will come back to have a beer with him.
Woods comes to the fence. A postal truck arrives, and a black man says the gate should be unlocked by now. He asks the father why he is on foot there. He says the rains messed up the roads on the other side and offers to give him a ride. The man says his name is Moses.
Wendy and Evalina (Sophie Mgcina) are preparing food in the kitchen. Wendy says that the master had too much to drink last night and is not to be disturbed. Wendy says they are leaving the dog, and she says goodbye to Evalina.
Wendy has all her children in the car and drives off.
Moses and Woods are checked at the Lesotho border. The guard says they have to check with security and joke about the postman. A guard asks Woods about his bag, and he says he carries a Bible. The man says he felt a book of some kind. They get in the truck and cross the bridge into Lesotho. Moses is stopped and given a message.
Woods remembers what Biko taught him about their education.
Moses sees Woods dancing oddly, and he says he learned it as a boy.
Wendy tells the children that they are going to meet their father and fly to England. She does not know what will happen to Evalina.
A policeman replaces the black one in front of the Woods house.
Woods is dropped off and gets into the car with his friend who speeds off.
Wendy says they can’t get stopped by the police.
Evalina wonders what is wrong.
Alec drives fast on country roads. Woods is afraid they may have to turn back if they don’t get there on time. The car gets on a main road and stops in a town. Woods gets out and asks if the British or American embassy is nearer. The black man points out the British High Commission. Woods runs over there and asks to see the High Commissioner and tells him he is Donald Woods, an editor from South Africa. He tells the secretary he is not a father. She lets him see the acting High Commissioner, and he goes to use his phone. While dialing he asks their government for political asylum. He calls at ten, and Wendy’s mother says she just arrived with all the children. She gives the phone to Wendy and says it is Donald. She talks to him, and he says he is where he expected to be and asks her to come as quickly as she can. He tells her to hurry, and they should have good roads. Wendy tells the children to use the toilet, and her father says he will drive them and hugs her.
A black official says that Woods will have to fly over South Africa, and they demand that all planes land in South Africa before going on. His friend says they can’t stay there because of the South African police. Woods says they want to fly to Botswana as soon as possible. He asks if they can force them to land. He says his wife and children will be there in two hours and asks if someone could meet them.
Wendy and the children during rain are checked at a border. The official asks for her husband’s name, and he stamps her passport. They go out. Wendy’s mother gives her some money for England. Wendy says they must hurry and says goodbye to her parents. She and her children walk across the border in the rain with one umbrella.
A British car arrives at an airport with the family, and Donald runs to meet them with hugs. He welcomes Wendy into exile.
Outside the Woods home two police hear the news announce that Woods escaped to Lesotho across the river. They run into the house.
After his friend takes a picture, Donald and his family are about to get on the plane. An official tells them that the South African government is threatening to shoot down the plane. Some say they are bluffing but would not dare because of the publicity. Donald says they are willing to go. The black official says he is going with them, and they all get into the small plane. The black man says that a friend of Steve Biko is a friend of theirs. The plane takes off.
They fly over South Africa, and the captain says they picked up the flight and want to know who is on board. The Lesotho official says to say there are himself and seven holders of United Nations passports.
Woods remembers talking to Biko on the phone about people demanding to be taught in black consciousness rather than in Afrikaans. Biko says if they change the way people think, things will never be the same. Woods says troops have been sent in to restore order.
Black Africans dance and sing in the road with signs of protest. They stop in front of many police. One orders them to stop and disperse within three minutes. One policeman starts shooting at them, and others follow. The people run in terror as many are shot. At night trucks are brought in, and fighting continues. On June 16, 1976 more than 700 schoolchildren were killed in Soweto, and more than 4,000 were wounded.
Biko says black children are born into this and will die in it.
The plane flies over hills.
In 1962 an act of Parliament legalized imprisonment without trial, and known deaths in custody with explanations for the causes of death are a list of eighty names up to March 26, 1987. Biko by Donald Woods was published in 1978.
This true story is accurately dramatized based on the recollections of Donald Woods and his family and depicts the oppressive apartheid regime that was oppressing black South Africans in the 1970s. A courageous white editor helped people become aware of Biko, who was one of the most articulate leaders and helped the blacks change their consciousness so that they could earn their freedom by nonviolent means which they eventually did after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.