THE MAN WHO DROVE WITH MANDELA ***
STARRING: Corin Redgrave
DIRECTOR: Greta Schiller
RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes
RATING: No rating
THE LOWDOWN: Documentary/drama explores the life of Cecil Williams, a wealthy, gay, white activist who aided Nelson Mandela in his struggle for racial equality in South Africa.
As a teacher, he once told a roomful of students: "Sit down. Why are you standing there like a bunch of Nazis?"
A wealthy man, he was also a Communist. Shunning any kind of class system, he referred to his maid as a "house helper."
A theater director and homosexual, he staged plays that defied the apartheid that was law in Johannesburg for years.
In the midst of all his other preoccupations, he risked life and imprisonment in 1962 to smuggle Nelson Mandela into South Africa. He then drove with Mandela around the country as Mandela, masquerading as Williams' chauffeur, agitated against the government.
Cecil Williams, the focus of the "The Man Who Drove With Mandela," was and did so many things that the movie's title barely begins to cover it. "The Man Who Drove With Mandela" is an offbeat type of documentary, interspersing interviews with people who knew Williams (from friends and former students to activist Walter Sisulu) with home movies, newsreel footage and imagined scenes of a bemused Williams looking back on his past.
The film is brisk and riveting -- not least because the reminiscing Williams is played by Corin Redgrave, son of director Michael Redgrave and brother of Vanessa and Lynn. Redgrave plays Williams with humor and dignity.
His calm understatements contrast sharply with the sweeping historic backdrop. The South Africa that emerges here is an uneasy country in which the struggle for racial equality could be seen as paralleling the struggle for gay rights -- two quests that in Williams found common ground.
The movie alerts us to ponderous social injustices. Horrifyingly, for instance, we're told that in World War II, black South African soldiers were given only spears, not guns. But things never get brutal, and the overriding atmosphere is one of gentle humor and irony.
For one thing, though Mandela's racial crusade is the focus of the film, homosexuality is given at least as much attention. Afrikaaners who are interviewed shrug nonjudgmentally as they remember Williams and his occasionally effeminate mannerisms. "We didn't know there was such a thing as a homosexual," they say.
The filmmakers didn't shrink from the humor of the homosexual predicament. "The war was the time of my life," Williams smiles, undoubtedly alluding to all the good-looking young men. In the newsreel footage, World War II comes out looking like a party, with smiling men swimming, doing calisthenics and sitting on the beach. It's a kind of idyllic music montage to the tune of songs like "Que Sera, Sera" and "Bongo, Bongo, Bongo, I Don't Want To Leave the Congo." (There are even clips of Danny Kaye joining in tribal dancing.)
Finally, there's the brief footage of Mandela, with his angelic smile. People allude to how chubby he used to be, and we see that he was. Like Williams, he seems shy and gentle -- a strange agent for change.
It's a very big story, in short, seen from a small vantage point. The filmmakers don't tell the tale so much as chip away at it. In that spirit, a comment of Sisulu could stand as a nice eulogy for Williams. "He was a fine chap," Sisulu recalled, "and friendly with some of the young men." Williams, I think, would have liked that. He would have also appreciated the comment made by one of his former actors. Smiling quietly, the actor remembers, "We had a hell of a lot of guts in those days."