The Will the Mandela Movie Even Win an Oscar Nomination?
By Danny Schechter
New York, New York: The whole world recognized and paid tribute to South African icon Nelson Mandela when he died at age 95. 91 Heads of State attended his funeral. The UN General Assembly organized a special tribute. His legacy is secure in official circles, and in the hearts of South Africans, but will there be recognition in the place that seems to matter to the media even more: Hollywood?
The Oscar nominations are due any day, and early on, it seemed, as if the epic movie about the world's most revered icon was a sure thing for Oscar consideration. Most of the main big newspaper reviewers loved it and, and its American distributor Harvey Weinstein has a history of influencing Academy decisions.
But of late, Mandela the movie lost its buzz, and is appears buried by the hype machine, almost treated as an also ran. The entertainment media no long seems to take it seriously. All the focus is on other films and the big US stars.
The producers of the movie, made in South Africa, albeit with a British director, Judson Chadwick, and Oscar celebrated screenwriter William Nicholson, were earlier hopeful that they had a good chance of winning at least one of the statuettes that quickly translate into a place in cinema history and more bang at the box-office.
For them, making this film was always far more than a commercial endeavor. In my book, Madiba AtoZ: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela, producer Anant Singh shares his passion for the subject and explains that it took 16 years and as many as 50 versions of script to put together the money and the cast. He was making it, he wrote, not only to honor Mandela but also tell the story of his country's liberation. His company worked as independents with no major studio behind them.
They were also very commercial in their calculations, doing what they felt they had to do to get it made and get it out, conscious of deferring to Hollywood formula, by focusing on the love story between Nelson and Winnie and, in effect, depoliticizing the story of a very political figure once known for saying, "The Struggle Is My Life."
On the left, there was disappointment as the review in Britain's Counterfire expressed: "This absence of ideological perspective is probably to be expected but the concluding effect of the film is to produce a sanitized and depoliticized Mandela that does not help us comprehend his massive impact. The apolitical Mandela in the film is the one neoliberal warmongers like Blair, Bush and Obama are happy to eulogize."
I am sure if the filmmakers had tried to please ideologues on all sides, the movie probably wouldn't have even been made, much less released, with the small fortune in production and marketing monies required to be considered competitive.
That said, it did make news with lots of star-studded attention grabbing premieres and some media write-ups, especially, after Mandela died while a Royal screening was underway in England.
The movie itself got less attention that its stars and connection with a well-known leader.
Some say that's because of the movie format, as in this review by Wamuwi Mbao in South Africa, "The biopic genre further restricts the possible creative directions the narrative can take, and the result is a movie that tries to do a lot but ultimately does not succeed in rising above the textbook facts to give us the story of this larger-than-life man. At every point, the discerning audience member feels dissatisfied, goaded by annoying inaccuracies, and manhandled by soaring strings doing their frenetic best to convince us that this is the story as it should be told. It isn't."
Most of the South African reviews were positive as the film set box office records but this reviewer found the film not South African enough, apparently unhappy that it was made for a global audience.
Other critics were even less enamored, putting it down as too conventional.
Writes reviewer John Beifuss, "a no-show in best-of-2013 year-end critics' polls, "Mandela" is not vivid, daring or passionate enough to exploit, for better or worse, the unexpected current-events context of its arrival. It is not an adequate tribute to South Africa's first black president nor is it a disgrace to his memory. It is a rather conventional and pious movie biography that misses the opportunity to be more -- to use art and imagination to bring insight to a life history that otherwise might be better served with a straight documentary."