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Laurence Fishburne Will Star in BET’s Nelson Mandela Miniseries, Directed by Kevin Hooks

Laurence Fishburne Will Star in BET's Nelson Mandela Miniseries, Directed by Kevin Hooks

Earlier this year, I spoke to what appeared to be BET’s investment in more weighty, scripted, original programming, as well as it’s embracing international co-productions like its acclaimed miniseries “The Book of Negroes.”

Among its plans to produce even more miniseries was the announcement of a production based on the life of Nelson Mandela, which was, at the time, said to be in development at the network! 

As Charlie Jordan Brookins, Senior Vice-President of Original Programming at BET said: “These are the kinds of stories that you can’t tell in just two hours… But they are rich, important stories.”

Three years prior, in 2012, there was an announcement of a miniseries from Out of Africa Entertainment, Blue Ice Films and Left Bank Pictures, that a 6-part TV miniseries titled “Madiba,” on the life of Nelson Mandela, was in development. The proposed miniseries, the producers shared at the time, was to be based on Mandela’s 2 books, “Conversations With Myself,” and “Nelson Mandela By Himself,” and they said that they had also been granted access to archives at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

The producers were in talks with “a short-list of high-profile directors,” they added, with principal photography scheduled to begin on location in South Africa in 2012. That never happened, as it’s the same project that BET is now executive producing, and which, announced today, Laurence Fishburne will star in, as Mandela.

Emmy and BAFTA winner Nigel Williams was penning the mini-series, which would comprise of six 1-hour episodes, covering Mandela’s early life, how he became a political activist, his lengthy imprisonment, his eventual release, his Nobel Peace Prize win, and his election as president of South Africa.

I would assume that Fishburne is going to play the older Mandela, while a younger actor will later be cast to play Mandela during his earlier revolutionary days, through his imprisonment, starting in the 1940s (when he would’ve been in his late 20s/early 30s) through the 1960s (when he began his prison sentence in his 40s) and beyond. Fishburne, as a great an actor he is, simply can’t cover all those years.

Kevin Hooks is directing the miniseries for BET.

Great black actors like Sidney Poitier, Dennis Haysbert, Morgan Freeman, David Harewood, Terrence Howard, and, most recently, Idris Elba, have all played Mandela on screen. However, in looking over all of those films – even those in which his story was the highlight, the narrative almost always included his relation to some specific white man – in “Mandela and de Clerk” (Poitier & Michael Caine);”Goodbye Bafana” (Haysbert and Ralph Fiennes as a prison guard responsible for Mandela, and the relationship the had); and “Invictus” (Freeman and Matt Damon as captain of the South African Springboks rugby team).

Elba’s project is really the only standout; although it’s impossible to pack an entire man’s life in 2 hours, which that film demonstrated, unfortunately, quite well, to its detriment. So really, there hasn’t been what I’d call a definitive Nelson Mandela film or TV series (scripted narratives, not documentaries), which, if you think about it, is a shame, given the global icon the man was and still very much is. And while a TV miniseries, like a film, really can’t capture an entire life in a matter of hours, Mandela’s story would certainly be much better served as an event miniseries, told over 6 to 12 hours, as was the case with “The Book of Negroes.”

BET’s Mandela miniseries will be produced by his grandson, Kweku Mandela, and executive produced by BET Networks.

Filming is set to begin in early 2016 in South Africa.

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