BET’s ‘Madiba’ Brings Nelson Mandela’s Anti-Apartheid Struggle to the Small Screen

By Sameer Rao Feb 01, 2017

The late Nelson Mandela‘s resistance against South Africa’s White separatist apartheid regime comes to life in BET’s new biopic miniseries, "Madiba," which premieres tonight (February 1).

The three-part drama stars Laurence Fishburne ("Black-ish") as Mandela and follows the activist as he and other members of the multiracial African National Congress (ANC) fight the government’s violent suppression of Black nationalism and racial integration movements. That struggle, played out over four decades until Mandela’s 1994 election as South Africa’s first Black president, repeatedly lands them in prison and on trial for treason. Unlike many other Mandela-focused projects, the series also depicts the impact this suppression had on both other leaders and their families—for instance, the first episode shows ANC leader Oliver Tambo’s (portrayed by "Sleepy Hollow’s" Orlando Jones) emotional departure from his family as he enters leaves for exile in England.

"Madiba" is based on two of Mandela’s autobiographies, "Conversations with Myself" and "Nelson Mandela by Himself." It also stars David Harewood ("The Night Manager") as Mandela’s ANC colleague Walter Sisulu and Terry Pheto ("A United Kingdom") as activist Winnie, who was Mandela’s second wife. The series’ title comes from the name of Mandela’s family’s clan, which many South Africans use honorifically in reference to the leader. 

Series director Kevin Hooks ("Prison Break") is the first African-American director to helm a Mandela biopic. He reflected on this distinction in an interview with Shadow and Act published yesterday (January 31): 

Having grown up as a young African American in the ’60s, which was really the height of the Civil Rights Movement in my lifetime, there was so much taking place during that decade. I think I had a specific take on this material because of that. I think it directly related to the experience of this film. 

Hooks also discussed "Madiba’s" relevance to contemporary American politics under Donald Trump in an earlier interview with the Philadelphia Daily News:

I do feel like there was a template that was created by the South Africans when they were resisting tyranny and authoritarianism and this evil system of apartheid that we have to be very aware of in today’s atmosphere. …And so, yeah, I do think it’s a very, very important and timely piece [premiering] two weeks after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump.

BET recently struck ratings gold with another biopic miniseries. Shadow and Act reported that "The New Edition Story"—the three-part series that spanned the career of the eponymous R&B group—attracted 29 million viewers when it aired January 24 through 26.

"Madiba" airs tonight on BET at 8 p.m. ET. Watch the promo above, which features Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu surveying the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre‘s gruesome aftermath.