As the great man’s life draws inevitably to a close, the war for Mandela’s legacy looks set to be an ugly one. Amongst his countrymen, his party and even his family a war seems set to be waged over burial rights, not to mention his ideological heir-ship Likewise, there seems to be something of a struggle going on over Mandela’s meaning in Hollywood – and with a new adaptation of his 1994 autobiography due for release in January, interpreting the former South African President’s life narrative will undoubtedly continue beyond his final days. As some of you might be aware, the teaser trailer for Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom was released this week – if you haven’t had chance, have a look now.
It’s one of two films preparing for release over the coming year, the other Winnie, which is due for general release having been released to film festivals already. Interestingly Winnie focuses on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s role in the struggle against apartheid, a tale I feel that has all too often been overlooked, but unfortunately promises to be limited to focusing on “her marriage and her husband’s incarceration,” not to mention crippled by an awful lead performance by Jennifer Hudson.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (henceforth MLWTF) also comes three years after the release of the cynically timed Clint Eastwood film Invictus (2010) – the story of South Africa’s rugby world cup victory in 1995 – suspiciously released the year the country hosted the football world cup. As FIFA went about their usual succubus routine in South Africa – draining it for profit, then leaving it’s poverty stricken citizens with precious little ‘legacy – the film seemed to gear Mandela’s legacy of railing against inequality toward sustaining a myth rather more comfortable for Hollywood’s elite. The concept contrary to the experiences of people the world over – that of the ‘united nation’.
Morgan Freeman’s (who, despite being touted “born for this role” because casual racism determined he looked slightly like Mandela, wasn’t very good at all) Presidential ambitions were those of a man in power, and so lacking in the revolutionary idealism that made the man famous in the first place. As, when the film was released, a first black President sat in the White House (Obama who himself rather cynically tried to make shameless political capital out of the old man’s last days this year), selling ordinary people out to keep white billionaire “wealth creators” onside, this version of Mandela was geared toward the ideals of a single nation.
In reality (as in the film though with less ‘feel-good’ factor) in order to create that, he had to distance himself from any notion of challenging wealth inequality. He appealed to businesses of the world to invest in the country, and bent over backwards to accommodate the wealthy white citizens who loved the Springboks, and through that maintaining a certain status-quo that was at odds with what the struggle against apartheid had initially been. In effect, apartheid remained economically though not legally, and that is the part of Mandela’s real life legacy (as this brilliant John Pilger documentary shows) that should be anything but celebrated.
And that brings me back to MLWTF. Of course everything I say now is speculation, since I’m only going on a minute long trailer but I’m more optimistic about the Idris Elba incarnation of Madiba (his Xhosa clan name). By basing it off the 1994 book by Mandela, it promises to show more of the struggle against the oppressive National Party regime. Because of that, it looks intriguingly like there will finally be of the dangerous ideas that lead Margaret Thatcher denounced Mandela as a “terrorist” (far from dancing with him, a la The Iron Lady), or young Tories associated with PM David Cameron to produce “Hang Mandela” posters, rather than the tame elderly statesman, who bastards in that vein now find it easy to appropriate for their own ends.
Whilst the film will fall into the trappings of any depicting institutional problems – that is it will trivialise the efforts of millions of people who fought apartheid by claiming in order to defeat racism, one immaculate, emblematic hero must make the ultimate sacrifice to eventually win rights for everyone else – it at least seems geared toward something of a more subversive, radical message. And it is with some shame I must still label a film that promotes equality and love for mankind as ‘radical’, but in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case in America, along with countless other miscarriages of justice around the world, it undoubtedly remains so.
In a trailer that will undoubtedly cause more than a few voices to quaver as they discuss it around the proverbial water-cooler, Idris Elba – doing a far better job of the accent than Freeman did – quotes Mandela directly, describing a notion more important than anything covered in Invictus. It is a simple but radical notion, one that is all too often written off by self-serving conservatives as utopian. It is the idea that hate does not come naturally to human beings – it is taught – but that “love comes more naturally to the human heart.” We are not an inherently bad species, but the artificial institutions and conventions we find ourselves entangled in torture and corrupt us. In order to fight this, we cannot simply rely on appealing the state – no freedom was ever won by the oppressed begging for mercy from the oppressors – we must unite to emancipate ourselves.
It is one of the most important notions to hang onto in times such as these, when in the UK, Greece, America, Israel, each and every country around the world, reactionaries look to normalise hatred and build walls between human beings. But whilst I suspect the film itself will fall short of being a genuine portrait a living breathing human being, any chance for those values of tolerance and love to grace popular consciousness must be a good thing. In a world where division is institutionally enforced and social creatures are taught to live apart, any film – and anyone – willing to challenge inequality and tremble at injustice is a comrade of mine.