When long-exiled South African filmmaker Jo Menell, producers Jonathan Demme and Chris Blackwell and co-director Angus Gibson joined forces to make the stirring Oscar-nominated documentary "Mandela," they decided to abide by a statement the South African president had made in regard to what was most difficult about life after 27 years in prison: "Getting people to see me as a human being, not as a messiah or a demigod."
They certainly succeed in presenting Mandela as a human being, a man of considerable humor and unpretentiousness; in conversation or at the podium, Mandela is one of the most well-spoken men of his times. But he's such an extraordinary man that the more they delve into his life, the harder it becomes not to think of him as a messiah. His sister Mabel says she long ago realized that "he belongs to the nation. . . . We can see that this is the job God gave him. . . ."
As an "official" film biography, "Mandela" had its charismatic subject's full cooperation, yet it has a quality of considerable candor, perhaps because Mandela may be one world leader who actually may have little or nothing to hide. The film neither dwells on nor skirts the controversy surrounding Winnie Mandela, and it lets stand without further comment Mandela's public declaration of his enduring love for her when he announced that they were divorcing.
Mandela, however, does not counter his first wife Evelyn's remark that with him politics came first, family second--a sentiment echoed by Winnie. There's not much of Mandela's private life in the film. We're left with the feeling that Mandela, even apart from his long imprisonment, has had little time for that.
The film reinforces the indelible impression that Mandela has made around the world as a man of awesome dignity, courage, faith and determination. Perhaps that Mandela was born into the royalty of the Xhosa tribe has something to do with his bearing and self-discipline.
In covering familiar territory--after all, Mandela is one of the most famous men in the world--the filmmakers nevertheless succeed in conveying how astonishing is the distance he has covered in his nearly 80 years. We learn how he turned his back on an ancient tribal way of life to escape an arranged marriage, fled to Johannesburg in 1941, became a boxer and subsequently a partner in South Africa's first black law firm. He became increasingly involved in the struggle against apartheid, which resulted in 27 years imprisonment, 13 at hard labor in a lime quarry. "It keeps you in shape," says Mandela, who today is lean and elegant and in his youth was well-built and handsome.
The succinct, briskly paced "Mandela" was culled from 200 hours of footage plus 100 more of archival materials. Skillfully assembled and enlivened by an intoxicating array of African music on the soundtrack, it conveys forcefully not merely the well-known evils of apartheid but also the astonishing strength and wisdom of Mandela. Here is a man whose dream--for a South Africa with a one-man, one-vote rule--and whose ideal--of a "democratic and free society in which all peoples live together in harmony with equal opportunities"--now actually has a chance of coming true.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: There is some footage of police brutality directed at blacks.
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An Island Pictures presentation of a Clinica Estetico production. Executive producers Chris Blackwell, Dan Genetti. Directors Jo Menell and Angus Gibson. Producers Jonathan Demme, Edward Saxon, Jo Menell. Executive producers Blackwell and Genetti. Cinematographers Dewald Aukema, Peter Tischhauser. Editor Andy Keir. Music Cedric Gradus Samson with Hugh Masekela. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; the Magic Johnson Theaters, Baldwin Hills, (213) 290-5900; and the University 6, Campus Drive, Irvine, (714) 854-8811.