Press "Enter" to skip to content

Review: Mandela and de Klerk (1997)

Mandela and de Klerk (1997)

Directed by: Joseph Sargent

Premise: A dramatization of the relationship between Nelson Mandela (Sidney Poitier) and F.W. de Klerk (Michael Caine) as they attempted to end apartheid and avert a civil war in South Africa. 
What Works: Mandela and de Klerk is a smart adaptation of recent history, distilling nearly three decades of material into a motion picture that clocks in at just less than two hours. The extent to which the filmmakers are able to cover a vast amount of material and not get carried away with the length of the motion picture is an impressive feat, especially given the self-indulgent length of a lot of historical films. The title characters of Mandela and de Klerk are played by Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine, respectively, and both men provide terrific performances. There is a tendency to portray historical figures, especially someone as esteemed as Nelson Mandela, in a way that turns them into a live action museum exhibit. Filmmakers and actors sometimes buy into the mythology and the public image of the character and therefore obfuscate the man. Poitier’s performance as Mandela does the opposite. He frequently embodies Nelson Mandela not as a saint-like figure but as a human being and he allows his character to be frustrated and show a range of emotions, including anger and fear. This is especially true in the evolution and eventual dissolution of Mandela’s relationship with his wife Winnie, played by Tina Lifford. These scenes make Mandela vulnerable and that gives him and the film a point of empathy through which the audience can identify with the drama. As F.W. de Klerk, Michael Caine is also given a complicated role. He is first introduced in the film as serving in the cabinet of P. W. Botha and throughout the first half of the picture he gradually emerges from the background. The development of de Klerk’s consciousness and political bravery are carefully done and like Mandela he is portrayed as a human being with his own set of faults and desires. The film crosscuts between the efforts of de Klerk and Mandela, both together and among their political constituents, and scenes of political violence, mostly presented through archival footage of the actual events. This creates a vibrant connection between the political negotiations and the violence in the streets, thereby giving the negotiations life and death significance. As a matter of storytelling, the filmmakers do a great job of alternating between fortune and failure and giving the story a dramatic rise and fall of emotion. The filmmakers also find a way to distill the broad issue of the end of South African apartheid by presenting it as a story of two men attempting to hold the center. This maintains the possibility of failure that is true to life and critical to drama, and it is a quality that many historical films lack.

What Doesn’t: Mandela and de Klerk was a made-for-television production from the late 1990s and the limits of its production are sometimes apparent. In the recreation of major events, such as President de Klerk addressing the South African parliament or Mandela’s 1985 ANC speech delivered through his daughter, the filmmakers combine archival footage with dramatic reenactments. The archival footage and the dramatic footage do not always cut together and the production values in some of the crowd scenes tend to reveal the low budget of the film. The picture also lacks in its dramatization of the relationship between Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela. Their scenes are satisfactory and actress Tina Lifford does a fine job, especially later in the picture, but compared to the depth of characterization that Winnie Mandela is afforded in 2013’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, this version is lacking. Also, as a made-for-television production from its time, Mandela and de Klerk hasn’t gotten a high quality transfer to the digital format, so the home video presentation is a little rough, and it was created in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, so when viewed on widescreen televisions it will have black bars on the left and right sides of the screen.

DVD extras: None.

Bottom Line: Mandela and de Klerk is a very well made piece of historical filmmaking. The picture shows its age but the performances and the complex rendering of history make it worthwhile to seek out.

Episode: #473 (January 12, 2014)