On the death of Nelson Mandela, some friends too young to remember apartheid may wonder why Mandela is a big deal. Just as Hitler’s regime ended, a different form of persecution was instituted in South Africa. In 1948 the National Party government instated a form of racial segregation, but restrictions and controls on the black population had been in place since the days of slavery. In 1970 as the Civil Rights movement in the United States was making strides, non-white representation in the South African government was abolished. I know there are more, and maybe better films, but here’s my list of movies that helped me understand a little better.
Invictus is based on the true story of Nelson Mandela’s quest to bring the 1995 Rugby World Cup to South Africa just one year after apartheid was officially abolished and multi-racial national elections resulted in Mandela’s presidency. Mandela hoped to use the enthusiasm of black and white fans to help unite the country. Because the Springboks, South African’s national team, have always been white, many blacks feel betrayed by Mandela’s support for them. Mandela and team captain Pienaar form a mentoring relationship in which Mandela communicates leadership in a climate of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Cry Freedom is based on the story of black activist Steve Biko and white journalist Donald Woods. The film traces Woods’ journey into the Biko’s world. Woods discovers corruption and cover-ups in the South African white government, including suspicious circumstances surrounding the deaths of anti-apartheid activists in police custody. The powerful message in this film is that loving our neighbors as ourselves means that silent disapproval of injustice and oppression is not enough. Our neighbors burdens really are ours to bear.
Forgiveness takes place in post-Apartheid South Africa. It is the story of a white South African policeman who is granted amnesty for his killing of an African National Congress activist (the group to which Nelson Mandela belonged when he was sent to prison). It’s hard to watch this man’s struggle with guilt and shame for the killings he committed in the name of a corrupt system that no longer exists. He wants to make amends. He seeks absolution. The film explores big questions. What does it mean to be forgiven? What is required after that? Like Atonement and Unforgiven, the film exposes the tragedy of a life that cannot embrace the freedom of grace.
District 9 is basically Apartheid reimagined as science fiction. A disabled alien vessel hovers over the city where, fearful of their difference and unspoken intentions, the city has rounded up aliens and placed them in slum-like camps similar to those occupied by South African blacks during Apartheid. Told documentary style, the story involves a low-level bureaucrat whose eyes are opened to the “humanity” of his alien neighbors. This allegory drives home the emotional and intellectual justifications that can be applied when one group of human beings view another as fundamentally different.
Under African Skies is a documentary about Paul Simon’s album Graceland. It was recorded in South Africa during apartheid in violation of a UN cultural boycott. Graceland featured South African black musicians.. The film explores the responsibilities of artists to follow such mandates, however well meaning.
Cry the Beloved Country is set just before Apartheid took effect. It portrays two fathers, one black and one white, bewildered by the hatred around them that takes their sons and devastates their lives. This film brought the big picture down to the lives of two men. The message is that the human condition, the shared experiences, like grief and love, are universal.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela