Man, oh man, is this a good time for a social justice hero story.
Madiba, BET’s three-part rendering of the life of Nelson Mandela, is a cornerstone of BET’s Black History Month programming, and stars Laurence Fishburne in the title role. It’s based on two autobiographies, Conversations With Myself and Nelson Mandela by Himself.
What emerges from these texts is just that. Madiba deftly captures apartheid-era South Africa and the big, history-making moments of Mandela’s lifetime, but we see the man more than the symbol here, and that man is someone who appears to be constantly surrounded by people, and yet most of the time, alone. Fishburne’s Madiba—his clan name, which, as he explains in a voiceover, means “troublemaker” in Xhosa—is thoroughly human and very believable, capturing the inner fire, self-sacrifice, dignity and tenacity for which he was known while also unflinchingly exposing his arrogance, doubt and regret.
Considering that the two source texts’ titles allude to a man who was, or felt, essentially alone, the miniseries does great justice to the reality that he was not. Though the six-hour program is very much focused on both the achievements and the inner life of its subject, it also pays homage to some of the less-remembered activists whose work was crucial to Mandela’s success—notably Oliver Tambo (Orlando Jones) and Walter Sisulu (David Harewood). Both actors deliver beautiful performances.
The cinematography is generally beautiful, and shot exclusively in South Africa and on Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned along with Tambo and Sisulu.
It’s got its issues, many of which are related to the distractingly choppy editing. The first episode takes us from Mandela’s early childhood to adulthood in about twenty minutes; it seems determined to hit a bunch of thematically meaningful points in as little time as humanly possible so we can focus on Mandela the adult. (The flashback of Mandela playing “hitting sticks” with a childhood friend is an obvious Symbolic Moment, and one of several.) But between the rapid time-shifting and the frequent use of spinning camera moves, some folks might want to pop a Dramamine before tuning in. We move forward in time very unpredictably, which is occasionally jarring and in a couple of cases raises questions it doesn’t have time to answer. The miniseries doesn’t really explain how the young Mandela, who’d fled an arranged marriage and village life and bolted for Johannesburg, manages to sail through law school. We see his breakup with his first wife, but Winnie (Terry Pheto, in a nuanced and lovely performance) shows up in his bed about four seconds later and we don’t really know how she got there.
The most disorienting moment—and I mean moment—in the entire triptych is probably our encounter with Steve Biko, an important anti-apartheid activist with a career spanning two decades who was famously beaten to death by police. We’re introduced to him as a character and in what seems like about 90 seconds we’re at his funeral. I get that getting into Biko’s life story is a whole other movie, and that in some ways his murder was the most relevant part of his story in terms of Mandela’s, but the lightning-fast pace at which he’s included and then dispensed with feels off-key and perfunctory.
That said, Madiba is a moving and beautifully rendered look at the man who was the face of the anti-apartheid movement, and it wisely gets past his face and into his mind. Mandela’s public persona is well known. What he accomplished is well known. Madiba is a fascinating portrait of the tensions between the two: Mandela’s inner world and the external world he fought to change. It’s also a welcome and important reminder of what it takes to stand up to oppression, how much can be accomplished by a small number of people with unwavering determination and a passion for justice, and that heroes are human. In a time of serious racial and political unrest, it’s vital to understand that these men were not superhuman—they just had the tenacity and strength and patience to force dialogue, concession and change. It’s a reminder we need to be given as often as possible right now, and this production team does it with grace and honesty.
Which is good, because watching Madiba will give you chills, given our present circumstances. There’s a key moment when Winnie hotly informs Mandela that he’s out of touch with the anger of the people. He calmly responds that he has felt his own anger and has concluded that rage and bitterness have never built anything—least of all a nation. That answer doesn’t seem to work for Winnie just then, but a reminder that anger isn’t the only valid reaction to injustice—that the refusal to be eaten alive by it is actually really important—does not go amiss at this moment in time.