Directed by: Kevin Hooks | 258 minutes | drama | Actors: Laurence Fishburne, Orlando Jones, David Harewood, Michael Nyqvist, Terry Pheto, Jason Kennett, Kate Liquorish, Hlomla Dandala, Meren Reddy, David Butler, Dawid Minnaar, Andre Jacobs
His life has been filmed many times, and many actors have stepped into his skin: Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). And not the least; Danny Glover (‘Mandela’, 1987), Sidney Poitier (‘Mandela and De Klerk’, 1997), Morgan Freeman (‘Invictus’, 2009) and Idris Elba (‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’, 2013) ventured has taken on the role of the charismatic South African freedom fighter, with varying degrees of success. In addition to that unique appearance, Mandela also had his own way of speaking. In addition, the right balance must be struck between the kind bridge builder who, thanks to his resilience, dedication and forgiveness, managed to bring people closer together, and the stoic warrior who largely neglected his family and wasn’t afraid to sabotage things when the situation called for it. . In the six-part miniseries ‘Madiba’ (2017), Laurence Fishburne makes a valiant attempt to portray Mandela. But no matter how hard he tries, he rarely convinces. Just like the series itself, by the way, which is more of a collection of historical facts than a compelling portrait of one of the most inspiring figures of the twentieth century.
The screenplay of ‘Madiba’ is based on two of Mandela’s autobiographies, ‘Conversations with Myself’ and ‘Nelson Mandela by Himself’. The miniseries starts with Mandela’s early childhood and shows right at the beginning how young Nelson – then called Rolihlahla – is told on his father’s deathbed that he is being sent away to a wealthier family so that he can receive an education. From that moment on, he continues to develop into the man we all know who dedicates his life to the fight for equal rights for white and black in South Africa. Director Kevin Hooks flies through those early years; his college days, his first marriage to Evelyn, his introduction to the African National Congress (ANC); it’s over before you know it. ‘Madiba’ would like to give a complete picture of Nelson Mandela, but achieves almost the opposite effect with its volatility. From the moment Mandela becomes seriously involved with the ANC, the momentum slows down a bit, but as a (more informed) viewer you continue to think that Hooks is mainly about an overview of the highs and lows of the life of Mandela, than to make it a compelling and profound whole.
In fact, that also applies to Fishburne; it all remains on the surface. He portrays a Mandela who is grounded and committed to the cause. We see in a short scene in the mines what motivates Mandela to dedicate himself to equality, but unfortunately we do not really feel what seeing the injustice does to him. We hardly see anything of his family life, but Winnie Mandela (Terry Pheto) luckily gets a lot to do in the later episodes. Even more important is the presence of Orlando Jones and David Harewood in the roles of Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, respectively, two ANC leaders who have been of great support to Mandela. Remarkably enough, both gentlemen convince more than the protagonist himself and Harewood in particular also comes up with a convincing accent, unlike Fishburne. Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, known for the ‘Millennium’ series, plays one of his last roles as Hendrik Verwoerd, the statesman who is considered the most important shaper of the Apartheid regime. Nyqvist is somewhat reminiscent of Vladimir Putin here, not least because his accent is more Russian than African; the contrast with his direct opponents – the white politicians are almost all played by South African actors – is enormous.
‘Madiba’ tries hard to give a complete picture of the long and turbulent life of Nelson Mandela. If you look purely at highlighting all the highs and lows, then you certainly succeeded. But of course we expect more from a film than a summary of the facts. And the expectations of a film about the life of Nelson Mandela, a source of inspiration for many, are perhaps even higher. Kevin Hooks has taken so much on his fork in his pursuit to be complete that he has drawn the depth out of his story. Laurence Fishburne lacks the charisma to actually bring Mandela to life; we see it all happening, but we don’t feel it. For an overview of the facts, ‘Madiba’ is a great introduction to Mandela and the twentieth-century history of South Africa. If you are better informed, then this miniseries does not bring much news.