Film Honors Nelson Mandela's Life and Legacy

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Palm Pictures founder Chris Blackwell and film director Jo Menell talk with Farai Chideya about their film and multimedia documentary, Palm World Voices: Mandela. The film covers the life of South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela, who is turning 88.


Today, Nelson Mandela is 88 years old. To recognize his birthday, we're taking a look at Mandela's legacy in the new South Africa. We'll also shed light on how he went from being the government's nemesis to one of the world's most beloved leaders.

Today, Palm Pictures, founded by Chris Blackwell, releases a multimedia box set about Mandela's life. The set includes the 1996 Oscar-nominated documentary, Mandela: Son of Africa, Father of a Nation.

The director of the film, Jo Menell, joins us from the South African Broadcasting Company in Cape Town, and Chris Blackwell is in our New York bureau. Welcome to you both.

Mr. CHRIS BLACKWELL (Founder, Palm Pictures): Thank you.

Mr. JO MENELL (Director, Mandela: Son of Africa, Father of a Nation): Hi.

CHIDEYA: So in some ways Nelson Mandela is a prince who became a prisoner who became president. How did the mythic quality of his life help or hurt your work on this documentary, Jo?

Mr. MENELL: Well, the mythic quality was in other people's minds rather than his own. I mean, the one thing about Mandela is his feet are very firmly on the ground. And one of the ways that I persuaded him to make the sort of film we made is I said, look, I want this to be a film about you the man, not you the myth. And he was very for that, because he said, well, too many people think I'm some kind of demigod.

CHIDEYA: I was lucky enough to visit President Mandela in his home a few years ago and he is a completely relaxed and comfortable person. Chris, I assume that you've also gotten to meet him?

Mr. BLACKWELL: Yes. I met him about three or four times.

CHIDEYA: What do you think about him as a person? What Jo was talking about, the mythic qualities are in other people's eyes, not his own.

Mr. BLACKWELL: Well, they were in my eyes, I guess. Because, you know, he has just an amazing aura, that's for sure.

CHIDEYA: Now I want to play a clip. Here's the narrator and then Nelson Mandela talking about Walter Sisulu.

(Soundbite of film, Mandela: Son of Africa, Father of a Nation)

Unidentified Man: There very few black businesses here. An exception was Walter Sisulu, who owned a real estate agency.

President NELSON MANDELA (Former President, Republic of South Africa): I was young and impressive. (Unintelligible) the first time for me to see a black man with an office and with a typist. And the time I arrived that type business, he was playing on the keyboard, you know? And this fascinated me very much.

CHIDEYA: Joe, can you explain how these important men came together to form the backbone of the early anti-apartheid movement?

Mr. MENELL: Well, it's really important to realize that without Walter Sisulu and without Oliver Tambo and a few others like Govan Mbeki and guys like that, Mandela would never, alone, had been able to do it. Because these were real titans. I mean, all of them.

CHIDEYA: Now, Jo, you had a building movement to free Nelson Mandela, you had fighting in the streets. You had some pretty rough images of bloodshed, people being shot in the head. And I remember from your film one image of the blood just gushing from someone's head wound.

Then you have the moment when he is released from prison and he's a hero. And then you include the moment when he breaks up with his wife who has stood by him. And she's Winnie Mandela, a legend in her own right, but also has had many troubles.

Do you think that Nelson Mandela's fight to liberate South Africa negatively impacted his ability to have a family life?

Mr. MENELL: Well, one of the greatest things he regrets, and he says this, is the fact that for 27 years he was unable to provide for his family. He was unable to look after them, and most importantly to protect them. And, you know, that scarred him emotionally enormously.

And then getting out of prison after all those years and finding a wife who he hasn't lived with for all those years. And she, of course in that time, had become a personality in her own right. So there they met and they came to America very soon after his release and, of course, they were just a couple from heaven.

I mean, the ticker-tape in New York and people looked and said this is just the greatest marriage, the greatest freedom fighters in the world. But it was really impossible for them to pick up where they left off 27 years before. And it was, I think - and he admits the most painful thing in his life was that decision to actually cut Winnie loose and divorce her.

CHIDEYA: Want to move forward in time again in Nelson Mandela's life. During the tense negotiations over South Africa becoming a true multiracial democracy, Nelson Mandela had very sharp words for the apartheid government. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of film, Mandela: Son of Africa, Father of a Nation)

President MANDELA: I am greatly concerned about the behavior of Mr. de Klerk. Even the hurt of an illegitimate, discredited minority regime as his has sudden moral standards to uphold. He has abused his position because he hoped that I would not reply. He was completely mistaken. I am replying now.

CHIDEYA: Jo, how would you categorize...

CHIDEYA: I hear a chuckle. I mean you can't help - he's so dignified and yet so pointed. How would you characterize his leadership style? And then his style of dealing, you know, with the outside world, outside of South Africa?

Mr. MENELL: I mean, his leadership style is very much characterized by the man as he is in his life. And it is that simplicity. He carries with him an enormously kind of humble thing. Like, he merely has about him a natural sort of built-in stature that when he comes into a room, you know, even if he weren't Nelson Mandela, people would just look at him and realize, wow.

So that in South Africa really cut across, you know, color and class and different languages. I mean he's a Xhosa, the Zulus are, you know, historically don't trust the Xhosa and have had a long history of war with them. And yet Mandela managed to cut right across that by just being what he is and that emanates from him.

CHIDEYA: Again, your timing the release of this CD/DVD package with President Mandela's 88th birthday. Why don't each of you tell our listeners how Mr. Mandela has touched - President Mandela has touched each of you personally and what kind of birthday wishes that you'd send to him.

Mr. BLACKWELL: Just love really. I mean, as corny as it sounds, he's just somebody you just love and I think the world feels that about him. He's just -there is nobody in the world that has his stature.


Mr. MENELL: I think that what he left me with was a feeling of a strength, of an absolute integrity of purpose. A man who does not lie - what he says he means and lives it by his own example. That example and being near somebody like that for that period of time has absolutely given me a role model, an example that, you know, I would never would be able to live up to, but I sure as hell will try.

CHIDEYA: Well, that's a great way to end this segment. And we'd like to wish President Nelson Mandela happy 88th birthday. Chris and Jo, thank you very much.

Mr. BLACKWELL: Thank you.

Mr. MENELL: Thanks.

CHIDEYA: Thanks for joining us. That's our program today. To listen to our show, go to NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Radio Consortium.

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