This biopic is predictably but depressingly conventional. It is based on the Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. I have not read the book but this seems to be both a travesty in terms of history and in terms of politics. The Sight & Sound review suggest that it “may find its natural home in school classrooms ..”: if the reviewer is right I find that even more depressing.
The film is an Anant Singh Presentation. Singh produced films during the Apartheid era, often with a critical edge. The most well known is Sarafina! (1992) based on the successful musical set in an African township. That film watered down the politics: reducing the struggle to individual terms and undermining the role of violence in the liberation struggle. The new Mandela does something similar. The politics of the anti-apartheid struggle are here reduced to simplistic slogans. There is no sense of the changes that led from the armed struggle in the early 1960s to the negotiated settlement of the 1990s. There is little sense of either the economic situation of black people or the values that motivate the dominant white population. As you might guess the dynamics of class are missing from both sides of the conflict. The film has space only for Nelson Mandela himself and his second wife Winnie. The rest of the ANC leadership remain ciphers, even Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. In fact, we get a fuller portrait of a friendly guard on Robbin’s Island than any other ANC member. The film reminded me of Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom (1987), ands also at times of the same director’s Gandhi! (1982). All three films present leaders whose politics are acceptable to the so-called ‘International Community’: though I think the two latter films work better as cinema. Where Mandela scores is with the focus on the black characters: they are not as in the other two films mediated by white characters.
We do get some of the Mandela warts, though he emerges mainly as an almost saintly character. Both he and Winnie are shown as involved in extra-marital affairs. However, Nelson Mandela’s ‘fling’s are presented uncritically whilst those of Winnie’s are disparaged in the dialogue. This is an important aspect of the treatment of the two major characters. The white minority, including their leaders, are presented mainly in stereotypes. The film is more accurate in depicting their racism and their brutality. The autocratic strain in Mandela’s politics is apparent, but this is treated uncritically, and with little show of opposition. The greatest danger to Mandela in the film’s narrative comes from Winnie Mandela. She seems a more radical character in the later stages, but she is also discredited by her association with the neck lacing in the townships of the 1980s.
The more complex politics of the resistance are glossed over. So events at Sharpeville are presented as a seemingly spontaneous protest and massacre. The Pan African Congress, who actually organised the boycott of the Pass Books, is nowhere to be seen. In a similar vein the youth rebellions in the townships, including the massacre in Soweto, are missing the important leadership of Black Consciousness and Steve Biko.
The plotting of the film is schematic. The actual life of Mandela is tricky to handle: all those years away from the struggle in prison. But the script fails to find a way to tie these together. The early part of the film works fairly effectively, but the latter parts lack coherence. Stylistically the film is well produced. But we see fairly conventional images and set ups, with a fairly conventional score. The film opens in widescreen colour as a young black boy runs through the long grass on the veldt. Such landscape images recur throughout the film: frequently in flashbacks with a soft focus. The action sequences are shot as with a hand-held camera, [probably a steadicam]. They are then edited in a series of extremely brief shots. This does not help comprehension. There are also low-angle shots of Mandela and his fellow leaders. However, this is not Soviet Montage or even Dogme. The film also has any number of overhead shots: a common predilection in modern cinema.
The cast work hard, I thought Naomie Harris as Winnie was the most effective. But it requires more than authentic costumes and accents to convince. The script does not supply great depth and there is a structural problem in the age spans traversed, which make-up cannot hide. The film is also long: I remembered to comment of Mort Sahl [possibly apocryphal] at a preview of Exodus ‘Otto, Let my people go!’.
Apparently the film is performing well. I saw it in a packed auditorium at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Presumably Mandela’s impeccable timing, passing away on the day of the premiere, assisted. It may also be that he had a premonition about the film! Despite the reformism of Mandela and of the ANC political line – demonstrated by the little change for the Black working class even now – they deserved better than this.
The last several decades have seen a series of mainstream film dramas that address the vicious colonial and neo-colonial system – much of it British. Many of these films have also attempted to sympathetically present the heroic struggles of the National Liberation Movements. It is difficult to think of any that have succeeded. They either wish to let the exploiting classes off the hook – as in Mandela or they end up settling for a personalised resolution that misses the point, also Mandela. As with this film many do both.
There was a post-screen discussion at the National Museum. People were generally positive about the film, though they noticed the omissions. Several argued that to reach a wide audience films had to dramatise and simplify. I think this argument ignores the many facets of the industry: star or auteur power, marketing and publicity, and crucially distribution.
Filmmakers have to consider which audience they are addressing. I do not think it is worthwhile aiming for a mass audience if that entails reducing the ‘message’ to what can be accommodated by ‘Western Union’! There are examples of relatively successful films that dramatise anti-colonial struggles – The Wind that Breaks the Barley (2007) for one. And there are films that both dramatise the anti-colonial struggle in Africa and retain the politics. My favourite from Azania is Mapantsula (1988, by Oliver Schmitz and Thomas Mogotlane) which utilises and then subverts the conventions of the genre.
Can I recommend Khalo Matabane’s Mandela, the Myth & Me, shown in BBC Storyville on BBC 4 on January 13th. Presented as a dialogue of voices, it includes radical viewspoints that never made it into the new film biopic.