The meaning of Nelson Mandela’s life has been contested for years. For much of his existence after the end of apartheid, Mandela sometimes appeared to be an empty signifier, available to all of us to imbue with our own meanings. This tendency has only accelerated with his death.
We are presented, for example, with the spectacle of people who called him a terrorist now full of praise for him. Take British Prime Minister David Cameron, who declared that Mandela was his hero. Or the U.S. officials who apparently forgot to take him off their terrorist watch list until 2008.
These are examples of people whitewashing their own history. But the attempts to rewrite Mandela’s are no less vigorous. Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, tried to contrast Mandela with the Palestinians (with whose cause Mandela expressed solidarity), saying Mandela was “a man of vision, a fighter for freedom who rejected violence.”
Fortunately, these representations are being contested on many fronts. Twitter, for example, was quick to remind Cameron that as a Conservative Party researcher he went on a sanctions-busting, all-expenses-paid trip to South Africa in 1989. As for Netanyahu, South Africans seemed less ready to separate their cause from that of the Palestinians. The threat of protests may have persuaded Netanyahu to miss Mandela’s funeral.
More likely to have a lasting impact, however, are the representations of Mandela’s life and legacy produced by Hollywood. The Internet Movie Database lists at least 16 films since the mid-1960s that include him as a character. The very first was a 1966 German production about the Rivonia trial, in which Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. In that film he was played by South African actor Simon Sabela (later the star of “The Gods Must Be Crazy”). When American producers finally got in on the action in the late 1980s, Mandela’s image came to be powerfully mediated by Hollywood studios and African-American actors. In 1987, Danny Glover played Mandela in an HBO film, and 10 years later Sidney Poitier played him opposite Michael Caine in “Mandela and de Klerk.”
Two more recent films in particular seem poised to reinforce the particular brands of mythmaking and historical revisionism that have marred much of the discussion of Mandela in the days since his passing. These are “Invictus” (2009) and the new “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”
“Invictus” — dusted off by television networks again this week — focuses on one month in 1995 when South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup. Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) and Springboks rugby captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) are supposed to have united South Africans through an act of sports solidarity. Rugby had traditionally been seen as a white sport in South Africa. The film dramatizes an episode in which Mandela famously showed up at the final match in a replica national team shirt with Pienaar’s number. For his part, Pienaar led the team to triumph, showing that whites could still be winners in the new South Africa.
In fact, historians largely dismiss this moment as nothing more than an orchestrated media affair, and in 1998 Mandela announced a commission of inquiry into rugby in South Africa because of administrators’ failure to deal with the continued exclusion of black players from top-flight rugby. One American film critic said that “as history, (‘Invictus’) is borderline daft and selective to the point of distortion,” yet conceded that “as a portrait of a hero, the movie effortlessly brings a lump to the throat.” And that is what we remember. The old black freedom fighter and the young white rugby superstar saved South Africa.
The more ambitious “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” covers Mandela’s whole life. Appearing now in limited release and set to open in theaters nationwide on Christmas Day, 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.
Admittedly, it’s a powerful film. Unfortunately, much of it is pure fabrication. Just this past weekend, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which archives Mandela’s personal papers, said the film contains numerous errors. Dramas take dramatic license, of course, 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 his main collaborators (Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo and Oliver Tambo key among them) and collapses a complex movement into Nelson (good and forgiving) versus Winnie (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.
Jessica Blatt teaches political science at Marymount Manhattan College.