A film taken from a book by a white guy who knew an African leader – sounds familiar? This one is far better than the Idi Amin picture, _The Last King of Scotland_, although once again it’s a very comfortable and palatable film for Western audiences. This isn’t going to challenge anyone’s ideas – Amin was a monster, Nelson Mandela is a saint, and the real issues are out of shot.
It’s a straightforward story, but uplifting, and often moving. James Gregory was a white South African prison warder who, brought up in rural Transkei, spoke Xhosa, as did the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and his ANC comrades. So Gregory is chosen by the intelligence service to listen in on prison conversations and censor mail of any political references. Unsurprisingly, Gregory comes to respect and admire Mandela, and his ideas start to shift. There’s a very good scene where he visits a library to read the banned Freedom Charter.
Gregory’s own story, in a lesser way, follows Mandela’s. He’s honest, caring and seeks to live by his principles, even at cost to himself and his family. There’s some doubt as to the historical accuracy of the story – Mandela’s biographer, Anthony Sampson, claimed Gregory fabricated the story to sell his book and that Mandela considered suing. But it’s a good story, and a very well-made movie in the best liberal tradition.