Times Critic Queasy About Documentary Critical of Zimbabwe's Marxist Dictator Mugabe

On Friday, movie critic Mike Hale reviewed the documentary "Mugabe and the White African," an account of a man and his son-in-law struggling to keep their farm in the midst of government seizures of land owned by white farmers in Zimbabwe. They're bravely suing dictator Robert Mugabe and fending off threats and violence.

Hale is evidently angling to be the poor man's Stephen Holden, the paper's most far-left movie critic, by showing his racial queasiness about the movie's "one-sidedness and its nearly complete lack of historical and cultural context."

Hale found the "Mugabe" doc "wrenching, sad and infuriating," claiming that "What has happened (and continues to happen) to the Campbells, the Freeths and some of their white neighbors is not only unjust but also a horrifying, slow-motion nightmare."

Then came some uneasy liberal shoe-shuffling about the history of colonialism.

It should be pointed out, though, that Ms. Bailey and Mr. Thompson achieve their results largely through the narrowness of their focus. Almost the only voices we hear are those of the farmers, their families and their lawyers. Other viewpoints are limited to a rant by the man, a government minister's son, to whom the farm has been promised, and Mr. Mugabe's recorded voice, including his notorious line that he doesn't mind being seen as a Hitler by the West.

It's possible to honor the suffering of the Campbells and the Freeths and to revile the actions of the Mugabe government and, at the same time, to be uneasy with the emotions the film stirs and to feel that its one-sidedness and its nearly complete lack of historical and cultural context are problems. The farm's black work force is frequently on screen and is presented as sympathetic to its employers, but the workers rarely speak. It's impossible to know what their true, probably complex and contradictory feelings are.

Hale concluded that because of the history of "colonialism and racial strife" in Africa, the documentary "needs to be approached with care."

There's always been a softness to Times news coverage of the self-described Marxist dictator Mugabe, constantly referring to the dictator as a "liberation hero," though he stopped being a liberator of his people and became their dictator decades ago.