The story revolves around the life of black anti-apartheid activist Stephen Bantu "Steve" Biko (Washington) and his friendship with the white journalist and anti-apartheid activist Donald Woods (Kline) in late 1970s South Africa, during The Apartheid Era.
It was based on the books Asking For Trouble: Autobiography of a Banned Journalist and Biko by Donald Woods, who later published Filming With Attenborough: the Making of "Cry Freedom" about the movie, since he helped during production and even became friends with Kline.
The film opens in November of 1975 with a brutal raid by South African police on a shantytown illegally set up by migrant workers, setting the scene for events in the country at that time. Donald Woods is the white editor of a liberal newspaper, but he views Steve Biko as a black racist who must be opposed along with the apartheid system. A friend of Biko's confronts Woods about this, saying he isn't a racist, and challenges him to find out who Biko really is. Woods meets with Biko, who is a "banned" person, forbidden to move about freely or meet with more than one person outside his home at a time, but cleverly finds ways to escape this. Despite initial misgivings, Woods comes to like and agree with Biko, who brings him to the townships so he can view the horrible conditions in which the government forces black people to live. An increasing spiral of legal harassment and intimidation from the government results with Biko finally being arrested, then dying in police custody. Woods sets out on a quest to reveal the truth of his murder despite the danger to his family and himself.
Cry Freedom includes examples of the following tropes:
- Amoral Afrikaner: All of the Afrikaner characters (except for one) come off this way. Of course, since they're all State Security officers, that's not really surprising.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Jimmy Kruger, the South African Minister of Justice and the one responsible for Steve Biko's banning. When he meets Woods, he gives off the image of a Reasonable Authority Figure who does not like signing banning orders and the like, and who seemingly agrees with Woods on the need for a political solution to the racial crisis gripping the nation. He also listens attentively to Woods as he tells him about the vandalization of Biko's church by security officers and expresses discontent over their actions. However, Woods is later harassed at his home by security agents demanding that he reveal the identity of the eyewitness who recognized police captain De Wet as the one leading the officers vandalizing the church (with Woods knowing that the eyewitness would be arrested and/or killed as a result), with said agents all but saying out loud that their orders came directly from the Minister of Justice. Ultimately, Kruger establishes himself firmly as this later during the National Party conference scene where he mocks and makes jokes at Biko's death.
- The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: This was standard operating procedure in apartheid South Africa. A montage at the end of the film shows the numerous official causes of death for imprisoned activists, most being "suicide by hanging" or "shot while attempting to escape" but also variants with "fell down (various numbers of) stairs" and numerous other paper-thin excuses, up to the point where the government stopped giving explanations at all (even prior to this, there were cases they didn't give a reason for). Steve Biko himself is said to have died while on a hunger strike, even when the official inquest says a brain lesion is the cause of death, while also failing to say how this could have occurred, but only that there is not enough evidence to indicate any criminal act behind it. Several police officers admitted to severely beating Biko, but this was ignored by the government, who continued to deny any wrongdoing.
- Crapsack World: The film holds nothing back from showing just how awful life in Apartheid-era South Africa was for black citizens, with most living in crippling poverty, working as the servants for rich white people, dealing with regular harassment from police that could easily end in being brutally assaulted, wrongfully arrested or outright killed and knowing you have no hope of ever escaping the slums. Just surviving all that is the best case scenario.
- Hey, Wait!: When crossing the border to Lesotho, a South African customs officer stops Woods to give him back the bag he forgot during customs check. The bag actually contains his book denouncing Apartheid and the murder of Biko. Woods averts it by stating it only contains a few travel items and a bible. The officer gives it back to him, saying he indeed felt some papers inside.
- Historical Beauty Update: The real Steve Biko wasn't quite as handsome as Denzel Washington.
- Karma Houdini: Steve Biko's killers. Obviously there was no justice during Apartheid, but even afterward, when they were found ineligible for amnesty in his murder (due to it not having been explicitly ordered by the apartheid regime), the case was ruled to be without sufficient evidence to prosecute them since it was by then over 25 years old.
- Mighty Whitey: A mild and semi-justifiable example — the film sticks to the historical facts of Donald Woods and doesn't portray him as special by dint of his whiteness, but at the same time was criticized in some quarters for focusing on the white Woods over the rather more significant and interesting (and black) Biko (who dies halfway through). Of course, since it was based on Woods' books, this was likely inevitable. He fails to expose the truth of Biko's death, is placed under house arrest, and has to flee the country with his family.
- Police State: It's set in South Africa during The Apartheid Era, therefore this naturally is the case. The very first scene shows white police violently breaking a temporary settlement by black people up. South African police are the main representatives of the regime throughout the movie, constantly harassing, detaining or even killing dissidents. Truth in Television for the time.
- Punch-Clock Villain: The white South African customs officer who Woods has got to sneak past with a forbidden book in his bag. He's nothing but civil to Woods, and also friendly with the Lesothoan postal worker (a black man) who brings the mail through, greeting him cheerfully. The guy suspects nothing so he lets Woods go.
- State Sec: The South African Bureau of State Security, who serve as the main antagonists in the film.
- Swiss-Cheese Security: Subverted early in the film, when Woods just casually walks up to the house of the country's Justice Minister to speak with him about Biko. After he lampshades the trope by pointing out how easy this seemed to him, his host points out that he was being watched as he approached in ways he was completely unaware of.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Woods meets one South African policeman who believes that through apartheid, he can protect what he and his ancestors built over generations (this was a common motivation).
- Would Hurt a Child: The South African police put acid on shirts Woods' children wear, which severely burns them. They also gun down unarmed black children just for peacefully protesting.