“Goodbye Bafana,” vet helmer Bille August’s telling of the friendship between one-time political prisoner and South African Prime Minister Nelson Mandela and his prison warden James Gregory, is a kindly paint-by-numbers affair with black and white being the only color options. Earnest and well-meaning, the PC script plods along with its actors bravely carrying the load. As Mandela remains a popular, though no longer topical, figure, the pic will naturally garner some attention, but auds are likely to revolt and stay away.
Yarn begins in 1968, when Gregory (Joseph Fiennes) begins work at Robben Island, where Mandela (Dennis Haysbert), leader of the illegal African National Congress party, is held. Gregory, accompanied by ambitious wife Gloria (Diane Kruger) and two children, has been selected for duty due to his facility with the African Xhosa language, linguistic skills picked up as an only child with just a black boy for a companion. Despite this childhood bond, Gregory is a firm believer in South Africa’s apartheid system.
When the jailer finally meets his prisoner, it’s easy to see why Gregory is so preoccupied with Mandela. Mandela stands with his back to his latest enslaver, refusing to acknowledge his presence. This introduction sets the film’s narrow tone. At all times, Mandela is portrayed as strong and upstanding, superior to all, including his fellow political prisoners.
In an effort to show who’s boss, Gregory illicitly slips a news clipping about the arrest of Mandela’s wife, Winnie (Faith Ndukwana), after a prison visit. A qualified lawyer, Mandela proudly returns the clipping, shaming Gregory about his transgression of prison rules in the process.
It’s the first loss in an internal battle that pits Gregory’s integrity against his own hypocrisy in supporting the racist regime.
Being based on a book co-authored by the prison guard, pic naturally emphasizes Gregory and his family. However, while we see the gradual concessions that the guard makes to his prisoner, the script does not allow the friendship to grow, but instead lets it merely lurch forward.
After a break during which Gregory worked elsewhere, in the early ’80s he was again enlisted to be Mandela’s guardian, this time at a more comfortable prison. Final section — set in late ’80s, when Mandela’s release first became likely — displays a certain irony as the prison wardens resemble servants in a black-dominated house functioning as Mandela’s prison. Pic finishes with Mandela’s 1990 release.
Despite Haysbert’s dignified perf, Mandela remains too remote a symbol for good in a film that would probably embarrass the man himself. Fiennes’ turn is likewise respectable, but the script gives him little but a series of racist straw men to knock over. Opportunities to emotionally bond with happenings onscreen are far and few between.
Helming by August is steady, but lifeless. Lensing is a tad washed out, though makes good use of African locations. Sound mix at the pic’s Berlin competish screening seemed a trifle muddy, making some dialogue difficult to comprehend. Title word refers to name of Gregory’s black African childhood friend, but according to press notes means “boy.”