Whitewashed and watered down

Mandela is relegated to the sidelines of his own life in this cowardly biopic

<strong>Goodbye Bafa

Let me tell you about my screenplay idea. Not only is it completely brilliant, but it's 100 per cent guaranteed to get made. Picture the scene: we're in Washington, DC in October 1995. The Million Man March, that legendary gathering orchestrated by Louis Farrakhan to raise consciousness among African-American males, is under way. A stirring and politically charged subject, I'm sure you'll agree. But never mind: I've got the perfect way of getting around that.

The story of that day will be told from the perspective of your average white guy - maybe Brad Pitt? - who happens to be in the city when the march takes place. This character bumps into Minister Farrakhan - I'm thinking Denzel Washington for the part - in a bar after the march, where they've both been stood up. You can just imagine the potential for life lessons and male bonding.

I feel especially excited about my screenplay after seeing Goodbye Bafana. This film, about the friendship between Nelson Mandela and one of his prison guards, proves conclusively that mainstream cinema is equipped to explore black political struggle. Provided that the chief protagonist isn't black. And there isn't too much political content. Or any struggle. Tick all those boxes, however, and it's plain sailing all the way to Oscars night.

Goodbye Bafana stars Joseph Fiennes as James Gregory, a warder happily serving the apartheid regime in late-1960s South Africa. He can scarcely contain his glee when he is assigned to oversee Nelson Mandela (played by Dennis Haysbert) during his imprisonment on Robben Island. Gregory's social standing improves instantly in the community of prison staff and their families, where he and his wife, Gloria (Diane Kruger), are soon treated like minor celebrities. One of Gregory's duties is to censor what little outside correspondence is allowed to reach Mandela and his ANC comrades. When the inmates finally receive their longed-for mail, the letters have been reduced to perforated paper doilies by the scissor-happy warder and his team.

Despite the tensions in their relationship, Gregory feels a twinge of sympathy for Mandela when he suffers a bereavement. A few discreet chats later, and this bastion of the establishment is starting to come round to the notion of racial equality, even sneaking off from Gloria for illicit afternoons snuggling up with the ANC's Freedom Charter.

There must be plenty of naysayers ready to point out that hijacking the life of Mandela so that it becomes the story of his captor is deeply suspect. Almost as suspect, in fact, as adapting the film from source material that both Mandela and his late biographer Anthony Sampson have claimed is fraudulent. (Mandela considered suing Gregory at one stage, claiming that the pair never enjoyed such a friendship.) Those same dissenters might also argue that Goodbye Bafana does a grave disservice to its subject, and that by relegating Mandela to the sidelines of his own life, the fundamental inequality of apartheid is being reproduced once more in the film's structure - all so that the financiers can content themselves that a black story has been "whited up", or watered down, in the manner of Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland and Amazing Grace.

Next they'll be saying that Haysbert's twinkly-eyed portrayal of Mandela does the great man no favours at all, making this complex figure as sweet and insubstantial as blancmange. Or that the film ignores his ordeal entirely, concentrating instead on the treatment of Gregory and his family when his acquaintance with Mandela becomes public knowledge - the bullying and intimidation, the anonymous phone calls in the dead of night. Viewed in that way, the tragedy of apartheid would be that a warder and his family got picked on occasionally, while the brutality and injustice dished out to tens of millions of black Africans are reduced to off-camera noise.

But I am making no such accusations. On the contrary, I believe that the film's director, Bille August, and the picture's 15 producers are just the sort of complacent and lily-livered - sorry, I meant to write "compassionate" and "lyrical" - people who would be ideal to make my Million Man March screenplay. Failing that, I have another script in my bottom drawer. Anyone for the life and times of Rodney King as seen through the eyes of the LAPD?

Pick of the week

The Battle of Algiers (15)
dir: Gillo PontecorvoSay goodbye to Goodbye Bafana and experience a properly political work in this 1966 masterpiece.

This Is England (18)
dir: Shane Meadows
The 1980s live again in a half-brilliant tale of one young skinhead's summertime blues.

28 Weeks Later (18)
dir: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Can this zombie sequel match the warped fun of 28 Days Later?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?