1987. Home Box Office. 120 minutes. Directed by Philip Saville. Scripted by South African born playwright, Ronald Harwood. Three part TV Mini Series
TOPICS: Resistance, South Africa, Apartheid, Nelson Mandela, Media Studies, Sociology, Politics, History
A dramatization of the early life of Nelson Mandela.
The release of the Mandela TV mini series in 1987 in the US and Britain coincided with the making of the myth of Mandela as a worthy successor to Steve Biko, immortalized in Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom (1987). Both films were shot in Zimbabwe as a surrogate location for South Africa. The American media had begun to capitalize on Nelson Mandela, to the point of reducing the South African conflict to this individual's struggle for freedom.
Mandela is the tale of a superhero, a larger-than-life messiah, indomitable and powerful. The serial takes place in a South Africa with characters and social dimensions pulled straight out of a comic book. The heroes and villains are defined to the point of caricature, and no hyperbole is wasted when either Nelson Mandela or a National Party member speaks. For a while towards the end of the 1980s, white South Africans became Hollywood's irredeemably bad gays, filling the gap left by the KGB types of the crumbling Soviet Union. Films like Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) identified its villainous South African characters, while the TV series, Operation Cobra, has in one of its episodes an unidentified white African fascist speaking with the stilted, clipped, Afrikaans-speaking accent that has been popularized by films like A World Apart, in which coached American actors try to mimic Afrikaans accents.
Mandela presents a man who could not possibly exist, a two-dimensional world, and a one-dimensional supporting cast. This Critique will show how the serial's central character, Mandela, played by Danny Glover is a mythical, fictional hero who overpowers and makes insignificant the organization which he led, the ANC, and how the serial's setting undermines the factual credibility on which the series is supposedly based.
The first scene presents Mandela, Walter Sisulu and ANC President, Oliver Tambo, the only person of this triad not ever held on Robben Island, leaving their law offices in Johannesburg. The three leaders are reading a letter describing the happenings during the reading of the Freedom Charter. As Tambo concludes the letter, Mandela begins wafting about his companions like a Fred Astair, wrapping himself around a lamp-post lyrically shouting. "There will be peace!" "I am drunk. Drunk with the prospect of Freedom". He skips to the next lamp-post and repeats the swinging movement: "we are convinced he is going to break into one of these MGM production numbers which Gene Kelly made famous, with Sisulu and Tambo at his side ready to hoof and warble with the best of them" (Johnstone 1987).
Immediately noticeable is Mandela's (Glover's) physical size in relation to his colleagues. Glover, also the star of two Lethal Weapon films, is a towering, broad figure who dominates the screen to the extent that, at the end of the scene, the other two actors must peer around him to edge into the frame at all. Glover's physical presence immediately minimizes the roles of Sisulu and Tambo, while magnifying Mandela's.
All three ANC members are in uniform, each wearing nearly identical gray suits with black ties. The suits represent status and responsibility, prestige and respectability. In deeply conservative America, it would be unthinkable to aid `communist terrorists' which the ANC was labelled by prominent conservatives such as Senator Jesse Helms. By clothing the three leaders in well cut suits the series makes these men respectable in the eyes of the American public, notwithstanding the fact that the ANC by 1987 was receiving most of its material and armed support from Eastern Bloc countries.
The scene of Mandela's final trial begins with a long pan from the judge's chair to the back of the courtroom, with Mandela testifying throughout. As the camera focuses him, we see for the first time that he is wearing `traditional' African clothing. The rest of the ANC leaders seated behind him are all wearing grey suits.
Clothing Glover differently in this courtroom scene serves a basic Hollywood precept: when possible, make your star stand out. This dress finally excluded the ANC presence as an entity beyond Mandela. The ANC leaders are now Mandela's supporters, his cabinet, rather than Mandela supporting the ANC. Mandela is thus indexically portrayed as a traditional African representing traditional (black) South Africans.
The movie's finale is in 1986 with Mandela huddling in his cell. The camera zooms into to him through the barred window, cutting to a close-up. Glover's voice-over says: "I will return!". This entire scene is a metaphor which repeatedly appeared in pop culture indictments of the apartheid system until Mandela's release in 1990.
The two hour mini-serial now climaxes. We have come to care so much about Mandela that we are more upset over the injustice of his imprisonment that the cause that he fought for has been forgotten. The program's pitch is a clich'e: `Free Mandela.'
Glover's appearance at the serial's end bore no resemblance to the grandfatherly Mandela at the time he walked away from the prison. Grainy pictures taken in the 1960s froze the public's image of him for 25 years. Time , the week before his release, ran an `artist's impression of him in his seventies on the cover. The `impression', supposedly approved by Winnie Mandela, however, resembled Danny Glover, and the series was re-released barely two weeks later.
To properly inflate a hero, his nemeses must be deflated. Afrikaners in Mandela are practically comical in their evilness at times. At others, they are so gruesome as to be unbelievable. Upon Mandela's demand for a search warrant when he discovers him at his law offices, the sergeant remarks with mock horror: "Oh, I forgot! You're a lawyer. Hey, boys, looks like we got a kaffir lawyer!". More graphically, and much less likely, the policemen who gun down the Sharpeville protesters grin in anticipation and congratulate each other afterwards. The Afrikaners are depicted as the ultimate supervillains: petty, mean, and every last one of them power mad.
Hero inflation also requires an absence of doubt or contradiction. Again, to pacify American fears, the ANC's desire to first avoid violence; and then killing, is repeated over and over. The Congress' ties to the SA Communist Party are also minimized.
The screenplay takes quotes more or less verbatim from the transcript of Mandela's final trial. But the out-takes are selected carefully. Mandela's statement of allying with the communists merely to achieve a common end is included.
Though a well-made serial, Mandela fails as a docu-drama of the realities of the South African situation. The opening credits feature black-and-white `newsreel' footage of the implementation of apartheid. A bulldozer smashing through a township is freeze- framed, stopped for the credits: "HBO Pictures presents ... Mandela ". It has been humorously suggested that HBO executives meant to imply that HBO was stopping the bulldozers of apartheid. It would be more accurate to say that HB0 bulldozed over reality.
The series is marred with a number of errors, the misspelling of Pietermaritzberg (sic), is one example. Winnie Mandela, who had refused to meet the screenwriter, objected to the series, which she had not seen, as an invasion of her privacy, and that the series would serve no useful political purpose (Johnstone 1987). Her objections do raise an important ethical question - to what extent can re-creations of public figures like the Mandelas (or Biko) become the profitable private property of film and TV companies? Certainly, in the case of Mandela, HBO remained outside of the chains of accountability and responsibility established by the liberation movements to ensure the integrity of the individuals depicted
And at the end of the day, the bemusement of the British press on Winnie's objections to the series, must be measured against the potential of the series to popularize Mandela to a world-wide audience. But as Alexander Johnstone concludes:
Critics might look at this historical figure, whose `moderation' (whatever that may mean) is enthusiastically promoted, whose reluctance to consort with communists is stressed, whose admiration for British institutions and the American Congress is promoted, they may look at this figure and ask, if he still exists, how he fits into a struggle much deadlier than the one he led before his imprisonment.
This, indeed, was the problem that faced Mandela himself on his historic tour of the United States during 1990. Mandela's romantic media image did not match his real hard nosed philosophy.
Johnstone, A. 1987: "Don't Worry, Winnie - Even THIS Movie won't Harm Your Cause", Sunday Star September 27, 1987, p. 14.
(Written by William Sudderth; edited by Keyan G Tomaselli)