FILM REVIEW Freddie Sayers Goodbye Bafana
15 CERT, 140 MINS
Goodbye Bafana belongs, with last year's The Last King of Scotland, to the "sideways" category of political biopic: the story of a great historical figure as told by a random bloke with whom he happened to come into contact. This model remains popular with producers (it offers all the grandeur of the true life story without the budgetary requirements and scrutiny of a fullscale biopic), but runs the risk of skirting around the edge of the story, avoiding its heart.
Goodbye Bafana is the tale of Nelson Mandela's 27 years in prison as told by his real-life prison guard James Gregory (Joseph Fiennes). The initial problem is that Gregory's story isn't terribly interesting. We first meet him in 1968 as an ingenue apartheid prison officer, and watch as (aided by memories of his childhood friendship with a friendly "kaffir" called Bafana, and his consequent knowledge of Mandela's dialect) he gradually befriends the great man. He is charged.with censoring the prison correspondence, and we expect him to become somehow complicit in passing messages from Mandela to his ANC colleagues — but he never does. We then expect Gregory's childhood friend Bafana to be imprisoned on Robben Island — but we never meet him. The only way Gregory acts to alleviate Mandela's imprisonment is to pass a Christmas present, a chocolate, to Mandela's wife Winnie.
The sense of a hole in the story is corroborated by a bit of research. According to Mandela's official biographer, Anthony Samson, Mandela disavowed Gregory's memoir when it came out, and even considered suing him. According to Samson, Gregory rarely spoke to Mandela and used the correspondence he was charged with censoring to falsify a friendship with him. Who knows what really happened, but there is certainly a paucity of dramatic scenes of friendship between the two of them. The high point, through all the wistful looks and portentous scowls, is a cringeworthy scene of the two of them stick-fighting with tomato plant supports, just as Bafana had taught Gregory all those years ago. By the time Mandela is released, they have become a kind of interracial Jeeves and Wooster, with Gregory adjusting Mandela's tie and proudly sending him on his way.
The casting and the writing are both distinctly second-rate, and this has the effect of giving a faintly ridiculous air to the whole affair. James Gregory and his wife are an implausibly glamorous couple for rough prison guard NCOs on Robben Island: Mrs Gregory is played by German supermodel Diane Kruger, for Pete's sake, better known as Helen in Troy. Mandela is President Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) from the American series 24 — not much of an actor on the best of days, and so incredibly tall and beefy that he conveys not a whisper of Mandela's delicate charm. As for the ageing of the two men over 30 years, Gregory suddenly gets a moustache and a son who looks older than him, and Nelson gets greying hair and no wrinkles. Oh, and he talks like Mr Miyagi from Karate Kid: "We oil have owa jabs to do, Mista Gre-gor-e."
By about half way, I started finding it seriously irritating. On one of his offduty trips to Capetown, Gregory sneaks off to the library and looks at a copy of the "Freedom Charter", the founding edict of Mandela's ANC. It is an illegal document which he would be sacked for possessing. He steals it, and then instead of reading it in the privacy of his home, he chooses to read it at the most dangerous possible moments, such as behind the warden's back in his prison office. The scene is intended to induce suspense, but just makes Gregory look like an idiot. I mean, why would you do that? And why, after he gets into a fight for being a "kaffirlover", does Gregory still have the scab five years later? And why does he wear bright white polka-dotted pyjamas? And what is the point of his supermodel wife. except to complain about the size of the garden every time they move home? And could they really not think of a better way to do background politics than having unidentified generals gossiping over tea in a hotel lobby?
No, the only thing this movie must be properly credited for is painting a gruesomely unattractive picture of apartheid South Africa. The black prisoners on Robben Island were given a daily chore of pointlessly breaking up pieces of slate in a blindingly bright chalk pit. They were forbidden from mentioning prison conditions or politics in their bi-annual letters to their families, and banned from talking their own language to their wives on their yearly visits. In Capetown, Gregory and his family witness police randomly searching a black woman and arresting her, leaving her baby alone on the pavement behind her. Mrs Gregory explains apartheid to her children: "It is God's way, darling, just like we don't put a goose with a duck, do we? And we don't question God, darling, do we?"
To keep his spirit throughout those dark years Mandela truly is a hero. He deserves a more insightful treatment in film than this one.