Africa Once More

Africa once more. Back in October of 2009, I wrote a piece called Africa: A Grand Setting For the Movies . Time has passed and I’ve recently watched two more films about Africa and heard about a third film that will be released later this year. The first was entitled Goodbye Bafana (2007). An alternate release title for this film was The Color of Freedom. The word bafana is the Xhosa language word for boys. 

The second film was The Wilby Conspiracy (1975). Whereas Bafana was the story of Nelson Mandela and his prison’s censor officer and prison guard, James Gregory, and easily fits in the Dramatic Film Category, Wilby was more of thriller with Sidney Poitier as a just released prisoner called Shack Twala, and Michael Caine as Jim Keough, a British mining engineer. They are on the run from the authorities after an street altercation happened literally just moments after Shack Twala had been freed in the courthouse.

Both films were set in South Africa. Bafana was actually filmed in South Africa, but Wilby was shot mostly in Kenya and some sound stages in the UK. In 1975 the political climate in South Africa was such that a film of this nature, could not be filmed in country at that time.

Wilby begins with a courthouse trial. Shack Twala had been languishing in prison for 10 years. The charges (racial agitation) against him were based on legislation put into law after his incarceration. His defense attorney successfully argued that they could not charge him with a criminal act that occurred before said act was made illegal by law. Surprisingly the Judge agreed with the attorney, so Shack Twala was released.

So off they go. Poitier and Caine take turns in the give and take that we often call bandiage between men. Nicol Williamson does his best as a nasty, apartheid enforcing, thoroughly racist, South African Secret Policeman. Persis Khambatta, Saeed Jaffrey, and Rutger Hauer are on hand in supporting roles.

While the Poitier/Caine roles fit together nicely, you might find that the difficulties faced by the African blacks, and the other groups like the Indians, are hard to take. This film is from 1975, and that is the way it was back then. At the time, Nelson Mandela was in prison, and P.W. Botha was the President of South Africa. It was the apartheid system that was in practice. It would not be until 1989 when Botha suffered a stroke, that he was succeeded by F.W. de Klerk who would announce Mandela’s release in 1990, which was 15 years after this film was produced and released. On a side note, I actually met de Klerk in NY’s JFK airport in 1998. At that time Hong Kong’s airline Cathay Pacific shared terminal space with South African Airways. I was heading to Hong Kong, not Johannesburg, but de Klerk and I did shake hands.

Despite the apartheid horrors portrayed on screen, what we have is a rather good thriller which was directed by Ralph Nelson. On the roads from Capetown to Jo’berg, Sidney and Michael are racing to get away from Williamson’s Major Horn. Then a flight to Botswana and it is excitement at every turn.

Caine’s Keough says: The Police sure are busy tonight.
Poitier’s ShackTwala says: In a police state, the police are always busy. 

The above is a telling quote and it doesn’t even begin to describe how difficult life was at that time.

Goodbye Bafana hit the screens in 2007. It is the story which is based upon Nelson Mandela’s incarceration. The role of Mandela was played by Dennis Haysbert, and the role of his jailor, James Gregory was played by Joseph Fiennes.

The film begins in 1968, at the Robben’s Island Prison, off the coast of Capetown, S.A., where Mandela was serving a lengthy stretch. Gregory (Fiennes) is brought to Robben’s as the latest censorship officer. The prisoners were allowed only one incoming letter, and one outgoing letter every six months. One would think that while censorship of the letters might have prevented planning and plotting or the discussion of politics or prison conditions, how many letters could there be? 

Nevertheless, Fiennes arrives to start his new job, and is immediately introduced to a big-shot (think the S.A equivalent of the CIA) from Johannesburg, who asks him to spy on Mandela and his fellow detainees from the ANC (African National Congress). Gregory is suitably racist at this time. His wife is played by the lovely German actress Diane Kruger.

When their children ask them some questions about blacks and the enforced separation, they tell their kids it is God’s law. Just like God separates the animals, so must the blacks and the whites be kept separate. With no other local references, the Afrikaner children grew up thinking that apartheid was not only the law, and God’s law, but was also natural and they way things should be.

But Gregory as a boy was friendly with a neighbor black boy, and so he learned to speak Xhosa. As an adult, this made Gregory, all the more valuable to his bosses in Jo’berg. But Gregory started to notice that often, after he passed on some information,  the subject of that info would turn up dead. An auto accident, an explosion, etc. Gregory started to be bothered by all of this.

Meanwhile he was developing a relationship with Mandela. I thought Haysbert was a bit too large of a man physically to play Mandela, but this is not to say that he wasn’t believable. His graceful mannered speech and his bearing were all quite impressive.

Fiennes as Gregory aged gracefully over the life of the film which represented nearly thirty years of not only his life, but also Mandela’s incarceration. We watch as Gregory’s paunch grew, as his mustached appeared, and as his beliefs changed over those years.

This film, helmed by the Danish film director Billie August, has a certain elegance to it. Despite the ugliness of apartheid, despite the fact that the film makes sure that we will not feel any sympathy for the Afrikaner oppressors, you will find that Gregory’s change over the years is heartwarming.

But the problem of this film is that we know what would happen to Mandela. That knowledge sort of diminishes the film’s impact  So while you lose some of the drama, the film still gives you a look at a period of history that will never be forgotten.

It has also come to light that while Goodbye Bafana is focused on Gregory and his career, and Gregory’s focus was on Mandela – that Gregory’s perspective and the book he wrote about his experiences with Mandela might have been something of an exaggeration.  This because Mandela’s own autobiography Long Walk to Freedom only had two references about Gregory. There’s also the book Mandela: The Authorized Biography written by Anthony Sampson where Sampson stated that Gregory might have fabricated the story based on his reading of Mandela’s letters for censorship purposes. Both Gregory and Sampson are deceased. But this is just a note about the factual relationship and is a separate matter from the film.

Coming this  May and June, in Canada, then Germany, then sometime after that to the USA,  is a film called,  The Bang Bang Club. This is a story of a four combat photographers who face danger and obstacles during the period of the last days of apartheid. The film stars Ryan Phillippe, and was directed by Steven Silver. Here is a link to the trailer for this film: 

Well, if you have an interest in watching some movies about one of the most shameful periods of world history, specifically about apartheid, these films offer a perspective.

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