BET Celebrates Black History Month With a Brilliant Nelson Mandela Biopic

It’s never felt more relevant to watch a film that brings truth to one of the world’s most stirring leaders.

On April 26, 1964, Nelson Mandela addressed the court in Rivona, South Africa.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” said Nelson Mandela. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela’s three-hour testimony became known worldwide as his “I am Prepared to Die” speech. Fortunately, Mandela was able to survive his 27-year sentence and continue his fight against oppression.

By the time he passed away of natural causes at 95, it was 2013. He had ended apartheid, became the first democratic (and African American) president in South Africa, written a book, and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

And those are only some of his most legendary accomplishments.

To celebrate Black History Month and honor Mandela’s legacy, BET produced Madiba, a six-hour movie on the luminary’s life, which airs for three consecutive Wednesdays in February. 

BET promised to deliver the most comprehensive account of Mandela’s life. It’s a lofty goal. But if any network could pull it off, it would be BET.

Critics and fans were compelled even before the first two-hour segment aired on Wednesday, Feb. 1. Here’s why.

We were intrigued by the title.

BET chose to educate viewers about Mandela’s heritage. Madiba is the name of Mandela’s tribe. In South Africa, it’s a respectful and affectionate way to refer to their beloved, regal leader. For those of us in other countries, we may not have known this. 

Madiba would be the first Mandela story told through the black perspective.

Madiba is directed by Kevin Hooks, of Prison Break. Hooks is the first black director to tell Mandela’s story. With a powerful cast of black actors, including Emmy award-winning and Oscar-nominated actor Laurence Fishburne as Mandela, Terry Pheto as Winnie Mandela, and Orlando Jones as Walter Sisulu, viewers felt confident this movie event would give truth to the black experience.

The trailer was enthralling.

The stunning filmography (all camera work was done on location in South Africa and on Robben Island) added another layer of authenticity to Madiba. From the opening drone footage of a lush savanna, to the close shots of Fishburne in court, this 30-second clip made us feel like we were actually living Mandela’s experience.

Part I of Madiba confirmed for many viewers that BET knew what they were doing. Here’s why.

It held up its promise of telling the most comprehensive account of Mandela’s life.

The first episode paid homage not just to Mandela, but to other important figures in his life – including his wife, Winnie.

BET gave viewers the chance to know Mandela, the person, rather than Mandela, the legend. Madiba doesn’t gloss over his flaws, which makes the film all the more authentic. We see a young Mandela getting expelled from university for rebellious antics, and abandoning his first marriage. Knowing that the man who freed his country from apartheid and became a global hero also made impulsive mistakes as a teenager makes Mandela all the more endearing.

The format is ideal for such in-depth storytelling.

BET’s formula—an honest storyline, spread out over three nights—worked well for The New Edition Story. The movie event premiered in January, and garnered high ratings and superb feedback from both viewers and critics.

It’s timely.

IndieWire called Madiba, “A stirring reminder that resistance matters.” In a follow-up article, critic Hahn Nguyen describes this sentiment in more detail.

“It’s must-see television for anyone who questions the limits of human nature in pursuing a cause — in the name of freedom or even in the name of nationalism,” wrote Nguyen. “Yes, this is the story of Nelson Mandela, but he is the face and the voice of a movement of like-minded people.”

It’s 2017. Society seems to be at a tipping point, with surreal civil unrest exploding in many parts of the world. Thanks to social media and the internet, we see horrific current events unfold every day, and it’s disheartening. Madiba reminds the world that justice can and will prevail – as long as we stay united.

Tune in for the second episode of Madiba Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 8 p.m. on BET. Re-watch the first episode online.


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