A raised fist, a raised voice, a raised consciousness. As the United States is reeling from a series of executive orders from the newly inaugurated president, Americans are wondering what they can do in protest but also to change policy.
“Madiba,” BET’s biopic about Nelson Mandela could not have come at a better time. Premiering on February 1 in honor of Black History month, the three-part limited series examines the revolutionary who made it his life’s work to fight for the freedom and equality of all South Africans despite the efforts of those in power to maintain institutionalized segregation and discrimination.
To encapsulate any person’s life within six hours is a challenge, but for one whose public works shaped so many lives, it’s nearly impossible to do it justice. “Madiba” makes a valiant effort, but some of the time jumps at the beginning and end of the biopic can be disconcerting. We never really get a handle on Mandela as a child, and therefore it takes time to understand him as a young adult when he begins to take a stand against apartheid. Similarly, the time during his incarceration and directly afterwards is a bit spotty because, well, how much of a 27-year prison sentence can one watch? Unfortunately, that often leaves viewers a bit unmoored as the miniseries attempts to give clues about the passage of time through news programs, dialogue and old-age makeup.
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Despite those few hiccups though, “Madiba” is well worth the time from a historical perspective of getting to know a remarkable man and the movement that had the world rallying around a nation. It also provides inspiration for difficult times. Yes, huge, life-altering changes that can affect the lives of tens of millions of people can happen through resistance. But also, these changes only came about after a lot of effort, coordination, failures, time, and — sometimes — blood and tears.
The miniseries makes an effort to offer up a fair portrayal of the man we mostly know from our TV and movie screens or posters. For every good deed done for the anti-apartheid movement, he also sacrificed time with his family. The cause came first, and by default that meant he was not the attentive or caring parent or spouse he wanted to be. Instead of rationalizing the importance of the greater good, he acknowledged and mourned the loss of his personal life.
Similarly, his is not shown to be the sole force behind the anti-apartheid movement. “Madiba” rightfully spends a healthy amount of time showing the large network of help he had. We get to know members of the African National Congress (ANC) in addition to their allies in the Communist Party of South Africa to the point that we also follow their lives and sometimes deaths as well. Even Mandela’s second wife — Winnie Mandela, who became more controversial later on — is shown to be furthering the cause by using more violent tactics in his name.
Showing the point of view of the Afrikaner government is also a surprising decision, one that might be controversial in how it imagines private, damning conversations. While the National Party was in power, it adamantly kept apartheid alive in order to keep the majority of blacks subjugated. Even in the face of international censure, the Nationalists would not relent. It’s a chilling look at how power, pride and intolerance would allow one set of people to mistreat another.
Through it all is the eye in the storm, Nelson Mandela, and Laurence Fishburne brings the necessary steadiness to the role despite also conveying heartbreaking sadness, tenacious fervor and calculation. It is this unshakeable core belief in what’s right that keeps Mandela on the path and keeps followers loyal, even when he was imprisoned. Somehow, despite obvious physical differences, Fishburne channels the spirit of Mandela well. Backing him is an equally strong supporting cast, especially Orlando Jones and David Harewood as the dedicated ANC members Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisiulu, respectively, and Terry Pheto as the fiery Winnie Mandela.
“Madiba” is must-see television for anyone who questions the limits of human nature in pursuing a cause — in the name of freedom or even in the name of nationalism. Passion, like any tool, can be wielded for good or ill. But it is the harder road to follow to stay principled. While Mandela’s resolve was tested time and time again, the biggest takeaway was that he was not alone. Yes, this is the story of Nelson Mandela, but he is the face and the voice of a movement of likeminded people. Resistance can and will work, and it should not be done alone.
“Madiba” premieres Wednesday, Feb. 1 at 8 p.m. on BET and continues in that time slot for the next two weeks.