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.
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:
- Adult Fear: Your attempt to search for the truth brings you hostile attention from your own government, who go so far as to injure your children to dissuade you from your quest, then place you in house arrest and oblige you to flee the country.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 as handsome as Denzel Washington.
- Karma Houdini: Steve Biko's killers. Obviously there was no justice during The Apartheid Era, 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.
- State Sec: The South African Bureau of State Security, who serve as the main antagonists in the film.
- 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.