The problem with Hollywood Mandelas
Sean Jacobs | December 11th, 2013


Jessica Blatt and I wrote a piece for Al Jazeera America suggesting that more than the posturing of various rightwing and conservative politicians, what will be more lasting will be the mythmaking by Hollywood of Nelson Mandela. Of the 16 films which feature Mandela as a character, we make particular reference to two–”Invictus” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (the latter being released nationally here in the US on Christmas Day)–that reinforce the particular brands of mythmaking and historical revisionism that have marred much of the discussion of Mandela in the days since his passing. Here’s the section on “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”:

… “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” covers Mandela’s whole life. Appearing now in limited release and set to open in theaters nationwide on Christmas, the film got what The New York Times called a “macabre assist” from Mandela’s death. It comes with the imprimatur of the Mandela family, has broken box-office records in South Africa and is being touted as an Oscar contender (for Idris Elba in the leading role). Critics have called it Shakespearean and praised the lead performances as astounding and magnificent.

We admit it’s a powerful film. Unfortunately, much of it is pure fabrication. Just this weekend, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which archives Mandela’s personal papers, said the film contains numerous errors. Dramas take dramatic license, but the film strives for realism. (Most of the time, anyway. By the end, makeup artists have thickened Elba’s forehead to the point that he looks more like a Klingon than the Mandela of recent years.)

More important than the inaccuracies (and makeup malfunctions) is what the film erases. Among its elisions are the Cold War, communism (the South African Communist Party recently confirmed that Mandela was indeed a member, which had been something of an open secret for years), U.S. support for apartheid and the apartheid state’s sponsorship of so-called black-on-black violence in the 1980s and early 1990s. (In the film, it seems that Winnie Mandela, painted as an irrational, Lady Macbeth–like character, was the cause of the violence, which in fact resulted from clashes between forces aligned with the African National Congress and state-funded proxy organizations like the nominally Zulu nationalist Inkatha.)

Perhaps the most egregious misrepresentation, though, is that the film separates Nelson Mandela from the movement that produced him. In reality, the ANC — and the struggle it fought for social justice — relied on collective and collaborative leadership; Mandela was chosen by committee to be the international face of the movement. The film mutes Mandela’s main collaborators (Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo and Oliver Tambo key among them) and collapses a complex movement into Nelson Mandela (good and forgiving) versus Winnie Mandela (bad and violent). Along with all the mythmaking around Nelson Mandela that has accompanied his passing, these films cement the idea that freedom is made by great, singular men. And everyone seems to think the days of such men are over. As Barack Obama predictably lamented, “We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again.”

The problem is, this gets it exactly backward. The fact is, movements make Mandelas, not the other way around.

Read the rest of the piece here.

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Sean Jacobs

Otherwise known as Hasan Wasan.

4 thoughts on “The problem with Hollywood Mandelas

  1. This could be titled the problem with Hollywood full stop. They tend to exaggerate, sanitize or make up things that do not exist in so many films about real people. Sad but to be expected.

  2. Although I agree with you that Hollywood gets it wrong, I think it’s “unfair” to expect them to get anything about us — or any people for that matter — right. Fiction is what Hollywood does. Expecting otherwise would be — I dare say — naive. But the news media! That’s worse beast, for it presents stories about us to be truth. Either way, this is more of the reason why we Africans need to take charge in telling our stories.

  3. Saying that ANC produced Mandela is about as accurate as saying jailtime produced Mandela.
    It is easy to argue both points.
    The contrast between Winnie and Nelson Mandela and the different paths they chose is too apparent to ignore and very tempting to blow up by anyone writing the story of Nelson Mandela and South Africa. The complexities behind it may be given less airtime.
    Hollywood never make credible biopics but they are good at propaganda. Don’t expect anything more and you may avoid being disappointed.

  4. I would suggest that “Twelve Years A Slave” (admittedly not Hollywood) constitutes an alternative to typical Hollywood-style hagiography.

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