Shack Twala (Sidney Poitier) has just been released after ten years in a South African prison, and his lawyer, Rina Van Niekirk (Prunella Gee), is delighted and suggests he join her and her British boyfriend Jim Keogh (Michael Caine) to celebrate with a glass of champagne back at her apartment. However, on the way there they encounter a police roadblock and as Shack does not have his papers thanks to them not being given to him yet, the cops drag him out of the back of the car and begin to arrest him. Rina protests and gets a punch in the stomach for her trouble, and Keogh is not having that...
Which sets up a plot that starts out looking like a South African Defiant Ones for the seventies, but then turns into something else, even if that something cannot make up its mind whether it's a straight ahead thriller or a consciousness raising exercise. Alarm bells started ringing in some viewers' minds when they saw the director here was Ralph Nelson, who had such an impact of probably the wrong kind when he made Soldier Blue five years before, and he was accused of having a prurient interest in the scandal of apartheid simply as a method to sell his movie with, and not because he was genuinely interested in the cause.
But while Soldier Blue did seem as though it was trying to get away with as much lurid violence as they could under the cover of its right-on premise, The Wilby Conspiracy was not half as objectionable as its detractors might have had you believe. There was still the sense of it leaning on the thrills to keep the audience watching rather than appealing to their feelings of injustice, but with two solid star turns at its heart, this was fairly enjoyable even as it did try to preach. You could observe that at least Nelson and his team were on the right side of the debate and their heart was in the right place, but at this remove with the issues resolved what you're left with is an intriguing backdrop.
Best to concentrate on the stars, and Poitier may have made some unusual choices in this decade for a star of his calibre, but he was committed to putting in a decent job of work as can be seen by his characterisation here. He doesn't seethe with rage, but controls his anger, as if conditioned to by years of oppression where he has to keep his emotions in check, though that doesn't quite stop him answering back to the corrupt authority figures, but also manages to prevent him from getting into too much trouble on his own - we can tell that when the cops do crack down on him it's through their own prejudice that a violent reaction arises, which they pretty much encourage.
That's when the results go their way, which they do all too often, and our main bad guy was Major Horn, essayed by Nicol Williamson as a true boo-hiss antagonist. You think the relationship between Shack and Keogh is fraught with tension but it's a model example of racial unity compared to the way the Major behaves around those he oversees and beats down, both figuratively and at times literally. But what was shaping up to be a man on the run suspense piece, with Caine firing off neat quips in his harried manner, turns into a tale of missing diamonds that involves representatives of the Indian community in South Africa, with dentists Saeed Jaffrey and Persis Khambatta prominent. There are twists, and some more welcome than others, but it all resolves itself in a flight with Rutger Hauer and a big showdown across the border, though maybe not far enough over the border. It's not great, but then again it's not bad either. Music, which includes plenty of sitar, by Stanley Myers.