Mandela, apartheid and the movies

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

The passing of Nelson Mandela has touched us all. For once, media overkill doesn’t seem to say enough about this extraordinary man. I’ve heard or read so many pronouncements over the past few days, I can’t keep them all straight. But  here’s a quote I especially like: “In Mandela we saw what we seek to see in ourselves.”

There is a powerful Mandela movie that’s already in limited release and will open in Atlanta before the end of the year.  Called “Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom,” the film initially seems pedestrian. However, the power of Mandela’s story is such that, by the end, you’re grateful to the director, Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”), for not getting in the way. Plus, the picture offers expert performances by  Idris Elba in the title role and Naomie Harris as his wife Winnie.

The movie most of us have been hearing about during the media coverage is “Invictus,” the 2009 crowd-pleaser starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as the head of the South African rugby team, the Springboks. “Invictus” dramatizes the real-life incident in which Mandela reached out to white South Africans by supporting the rugby team. The sport was considered whiter-than-white, almost a symbol of the divide between the races. By donning a rugby shirt and making his support public, Mandela yet again demonstrated his wisdom, his savvy and, well, his showmanship.

Another view of the Mandelas is offered in “Winnie,” a 2011 movie that played theaters briefly a few months ago. Jennifer Hudson — yes, the “Dreamgirls” Jennifer Hudson —  gives an impressive performance as Mandela’s passionate wife who fought so strongly for his release and was herself brutalized by the white government. But as the film shows, while his journey became more about reconciliation and peace, hers was characterized by a move toward violence and non-negotiation.

However, the movie is more pro-Winnie than anti-Nelson. Played in what seems like an extended cameo by Terrence Howard, he mostly comes off as a strong, charismatic presence. But remember, the film is called “Winnie,” so Mandela himself is not the focus. It’s interesting, if only to see Hudson’s fine work. Plus, it was directed by a South African, Darrell Roodt.

Actually, Roodt has made a lot of movies about South Africa and apartheid. A good family choice might be his musical, “Sarafina!”

A “Godspell-ian” mix of song-and-dance and social agenda, this vibrant South African movie makes a joyful noise among the jarring horror of apartheid. It’s the story of a children’s crusade that began in the schoolyards and playgrounds of Soweto in 1976. The film focuses on the relationship between Sarafina, a high-spirited adolescent, and her proud, gutsy music teacher, played by Whoopi Goldberg.

The transition between the infectious musical numbers — by Miram Makeba and Hugh  Masekla, among others — and the grim realism of the dramatic scenes isn’t always flawless. But Roodt emphasizes his young cast’s energy and idealism and lets the sad message — remember, it happened in 1976 — take care of itself. Goldberg has what is really a supporting role; the star of the show is, well, the star of the show:  a young South African named Leliti Khumalo with a golden voice and a million-kilowatt smile.

“Gandhi,” released in 1982, easily comes to mind as another picture to check out since the Indian leader’s story and stature recall Mandela’s.

Sir Richard Attenborough won an Oscar for his direction. About five years later, the actor/director tackled the atrocity of apartheid with “Cry Freedom,” which, in many ways, is a more powerful film than “Gandhi.”

The movie has two heroes. One, played by Denzel Washington, is Steve Biko, the charismatic activist whose “black is beautiful” message threatened the very core of white South Africa. The other, played by Kevin Kline, is Donald Woods, the white editor who risked his life to tell his friend Biko’s story.

The movie divides perhaps too neatly into two parts: the first concentrates on Biko and his martyrdom; the second is like “The Great Escape” — that is, a thumpingly good adventure.

You could say the picture was made for an audience of Donald Woods, by which I mean good-hearted liberals who recognize the abomination of apartheid and behave as though that recognition in itself is a suitable substitute for action.

But “Cry Freedom” demands more of us. Like “The Diary of Anne Frank,” it gives a human face to horror. Donald Woods himself said he wrote the book because it was what he could do to help. That’s pretty much what Attenborough and his cast have done, too. It’s an important picture.

There are other apartheid movies you might want to check out: “Cry the Beloved Country” and “A Place for Weeping,” both directed by Roodt. Or “A Dry White Season,” starring Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon, Zakes Mokae and, yes, Marlon Brando.  Or, if you’re in the mood for something completely different, you might want to watch “District Nine,” a remarkably original sci-fi film that’s a mind-boggling metaphor for apartheid.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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