Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mandela didn't throw spears (or: Why I hate Django Unchained)

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” 
- Nelson Mandela



This is a sort-of review of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a sort-of farewell to the great man, who passed away on December 5th 2013, and sort of a call for the forgiveness and introspection that Madiba stood for.

Let's start with Mandela, the film. No, it's not a Lincoln, and it's not quite a Gandhi either. Story-wise, it reads like a Wikipedia account of Mandela's life (or a CliffsNotes summary of Mandela's memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, minus the critical analysis). Naturally, there are many details and nuances lost in the telling of Mandela's whole journey, from his Abakwetha initiation ceremony at 14 to his inauguration as the first democratically elected President of South Africa at 76. If you take the film for what it is - an overview of a great life, an introduction to a complex struggle and hopefully inspiration enough to read (rather than substitute) Mandela's dense autobiography - it is a perfectly decent film with solid production values (handsome photography, fantastic costumes, effective if too-noticeable score) released just in time for the whole world to simmer together in Mandela's legacy. It's clearly a film that loves Mandela and strives to humanise him but it is not an abundantly thoughtful film. One wonders if viewers unfamiliar with Mandela's story would walk away understanding quite why over 20 000 people queued for days to view Mandela's body at the Union Buildings. Mandela's icon status always had less to do with what he accomplished than who he was and how he treated every single person he met. At the very least, Invictus should be compulsory ancillary viewing to get a glimpse of Mandela's playful leadership genius.

The problem with skimming over much of the detail is losing much of the context. For those who lived through the struggle, wrote about the struggle, analysed the struggle and believed in the struggle, the swift sign-posting of Mandela LWTF may be a very frustrating experience. Director Justin Chadwick explains that there was simply too much ground to cover in just a few hours so he chose, instead, to focus on Mandela the man, the cad, the womaniser, the fighter. Fair enough, but Mandela never really needed much humanising to anyone who who was paying attention -  he never made much effort to hide his flaws, he was always full of mischief and good humour, he seemed more interested in people than in policy and his loud trademark shirts were a gentle, enduring, and endearing, middle finger to convention (that may seem insignificant, but no South African President had ever bothered to be approachable before). That he was a ladies man and knew how to make bombs is fairly self evident from the fact that he was married three times and imprisoned as a terrorist (although it must be clarified that the bombings specifically excluded human targets, which is more than can be said for the ruling party at the time). That he was human was never in doubt. How he managed to be embraced as the Tata of an entire nation - black and white (and everything in between) is the really interesting question. Ultimately Chadwick gives us plenty of What, and too little Why. The Why is what makes this story both interesting and significant.

In the spirit of Madiba the reconiliator, I am inclined to say let's celebrate all that is good and competent about the film, and forgive it's shortcomings. In the spirit of Madiba the pioneering leader of our free nation, I am inclined to say, let's tell our own stories and let's tell them better. We can't keep complaining about foreigners' takes on our most fascinating, powerful, complicated histories, if we don't step up and tell them better ourselves. Challenge accepted.

On that note, We Need to Talk About the Bono song at the end of Mandela: LWTF (which has since become an award winner). Many have complained about the myriad of talented local musicians who were overlooked in favour of Rock n Roll's most obvious go-to humanitarian. In the inclusive spirit of Madiba, I am inclined to be proud that one of the word's most recognisable rock stars was inspired enough to celebrate our Tata's ethos of love in song - and at least Elton John didn't just recycle Candle in the Wind again. But as a movie-goer and a South African local, I can't help but kind of hate this song. Look, Bono was Irish in the 80s, so he should understand something about liberation struggles and his lyrics do indicate a genuine appreciation for Mandela's philosophy of love as the natural human state we should all remember to aspire to. This poppy, upbeat, radio-friendly song, however, feels tonally irreverent to the film and, in if heard in any other context, not really recognisable as a song about Mandela or the Apartheid struggle. It also jarringly concludes the film on a decidedly Westernised note, once again driving home the point that we should be telling our own stories with our own people. 

Songs were one of the primary ways of expressing solidarity during the apartheid struggle, and are actively used to this day to memorialise anti-apartheid leaders - for proof, attend just a single ANC rally. Mandela was also Xhosa, a tribe with a rich culture of music and musical storytelling. Now I am grateful that Bono didn't try to Africanise his song with a black children's choir or tribal chanting, but I can't help feeling that he could have put a bit more thought into it. At the every least he could have closed the film with a raw Rock n Roll liberation anthem, rather than this preppy, sugary tune. But let my ranting be over. I am indulging my inner Winnie Mandela (more on that later). Thank you, Bono, for your efforts, and for caring so much about our beloved Tata.

Then the performances. Mandela is a gift to any black actor. Many have tried, mainly only Morgan Freeman has really succeeded. He's still my Mandela for the ages, but Idris Elba does a commendable job. He is not given the same focus and nuance as Freeman, having to jog through about six decades of Mandela's busy life in a mere two hours and nineteen minutes (given the subject matter, you feel like they could have tacked on another 40 minutes and gotten a few more of the details right, stewed in a few more nuances). He lacks any physical resemblance to Mandela, other than being black, but quickly makes up for it with a pitch perfect accent and a comfortable understanding of Mandela's mannerisms. His appearance only becomes a problem in Mandela's prison years and beyond, when distracting aging makeup - the film's biggest technical fail - turns Elba into a weirdly morphed version of Madiba (yes, even Madiba thought he was watching himself walking through a field with children... but did they show him the shots of his creepily greying hair?). Elba is a great actor, and he does Madiba justice with the material he is given. There is great authority in everything that comes out of his mouth and a conviction that feels real rather than another awkward Braveheart impression. From his vibrant fighting spirit as young Mandela to his stirring, restrained SAUK address, Elba maintains a strong sense of who Madiba was throughout. I could have done with more time dedicated to what catalysed Mandela's great change of heart in prison - something more substantial than the passing of time and the trimming of tomatoes. Somewhere in the patience, introspection and broad thinking that prison required of him, Mandela touched the divine and become a leader of extraordinary vision and insight. 

Trying to sort through all the details and complexities, the film finds its back bone in the contrast between Nelson and Winnie Mandela as their lives become inextricably caught up in the freedom struggle. Both are passionate, educated, highly intelligent and trail blazing individuals who love their country and are willing to sacrifice their personal lives for the greater good of their people. Both are persecuted by the white government, but their lives and struggles turn out very differently (Winnie's life took a particular turn for the bizarre in the new South Africa, but that will be covered in the Winnie biopic starring Jennifer Hudson - for which I can only skeptically reserve judgment). In this regard, at least, Chadwick and British Actress Naomie Harris do quite some justice to the complex, contradictory Winnie. Sure, we only see her development in fleeting glances, and in juxtaposition to Mandela's, but Harris plays her with so much fire and conviction, you can't help but sympathise with her cause, while feeling the impending doom of the lines she keeps threatening to cross - and ultimately does. Like Elba, Harris nails the accent without inviting ridicule (we're looking at you, Leo DiCaprio & Terrence Howard) and rings true in every scene. She also wears some sensational outfits - one of the highlights of the film. And she wears them just the way Winnie would have - with a particularity and fierce confidence that let you know she made her own rules and meant business.

“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” 
- Nelson Mandela

Which brings me to what I think I want to talk about - Nelson vs Winnie. It's quite a tragic relationship - a meeting of minds separated by the weight of the Apartheid struggle. They spent their best years apart, they suffered their persecutions apart, they emerged at the other end of Robben Island with irreconcilably divided ideologies. You can't blame Winnie for wanting revenge, for wanting to to unleash the beast - her response to white oppression was reasonable, justified, fair. And you can't blame her for being disappointed in Nelson for turning the other cheek, for insisting on forgiveness to those who had long-since passed the point of deserving it. But ultimately, he was right, wasn't he? He chose an unreasonable higher road; one of forgiveness but, more importantly, of intrinsic human respect. He believed absolutely that the way Africans had been treated in their own country was inexcusable, but refused to treat anyone else the same way. Arguably, whites never belonged in Africa in the first place, and that is a tension that is still playing itself out in our new South Africa, but Nelson would rather embrace those that had come to share his country with him than treat anyone as a second-rate citizen. His forgiveness was controversial - then and now - but it united a nation, astonished the world, paved the way for a free, democratic society and avoided civil war. Winnie's anger, hatred and bloodlust led her down a path of blinded arrogance that almost ruined her and her legacy. It is to the African peoples' credit that they would rather honour her for her contributions to the struggle than persecute her for her bizarre mistakes.


And this is the thing about Mandela's high road - he touched something divine. In A Tale of Three Kings, Gene Edwards takes a lyrical look at the Kingship of the first three rulers of Israel - Saul, David and Absalom - and asks "What do you do when someone throws spears at you?" It is fitting that David and Mandela, two flawed, publicly vulnerable men, responded the same way to grossly unreasonable persecution - and it made them two of the most celebrated and influential leaders in history - they refused to throw spears back, even when they had the opportunity to, because to do so would have made them just like their oppressors. It would repeat the cycle and trap them in the same fears that made their unjust leaders abandon their own humanity. When you set yourself up as the moral authority, you set yourself up to become a tyrant. Mandela refused for his people to do that.

"It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity."
- Nelson Mandela

White people in South Africa can be ludicrously petrified of black hatred (see the absurd, white-created myth of the Night of the Long Knives, now finally dispelled a good number of weeks after Madiba's death). It turns out the majority of black South Africans never wanted to slaughter us all after all. They just wanted their kids to have the same opportunity as ours. (I mean, they were here first and all that). Integration is slow, but it is happening.
Black medical staff treat a wounded KKK member

And then, lastly, on to Django Unchained. Yes, it's a ballsy and entertaining, if messy and self-indulgent, piece of film pastiche, but I loathe it for implying that black slaves would / should have been as cruel and bloodthirsty as the inhuman slave owners who oppressed them. Tarantino's revenge fantasy belies and belittles the incredible grace, restraint and intelligence with which great men like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu fought for freedom but refused to surrender their humanity and their respect towards the notion that all men - their oppressors included - are created equal. 

What the ANC accomplished was nothing short of astonishing. There's no doubt the white minority in South Africa had bloodshed coming to them, but the great leaders of the African National Congress, refused to become the savages they expected them to be. The savages Tarantino still expects them to be. They showed us all that there is a higher way, and it is possible for flawed men to attain it.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
- Nelson Mandela

Rest in peace, Tata. I cannot hope and pray enough that your legacy truly lives on in us.