Long Walk to Freedom

Source: Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (London: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), pp. 596-597

Text: In keeping with the increased openness on the island, we now had our own cinema. Almost every week we watched films on a sheet in a large room adjacent to our corridor. Later, we had a proper screen. The films were a wonderful diversion, a vivid escape from the bleakness of prison life.

The first films we saw were silent, black-and-white Hollywood action movies and Westerns that were made even before my time. I recall one of the first ones was The Mark of Zorro, with the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, a move that was made in 1920. The authorities seemed to have a weakness for historical films, particularly ones with a stern moral message. Among the early films we saw – now in colour, with dialogue – were The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston as Moses, The King and I with Yul Brynner and Cleopatra with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

We were intrigued by The King and I, for to us it depicted the clash between the values of East and West, and seemed to suggest that the West had much to learn from the East. Cleopatra proved controversial; many of my comrades took exception to the fact that the queen of Egypt was depicted by a raven-haired, violet-eyed American actress, however beautiful. The detractors asserted that the movie was an example of Western propaganda that sought to erase the fact that Cleopatra was an African woman. I related how on my trip to Egypt I had seen a splendid sculpture of a young ebony-skinned Cleopatra.

Later, we also saw local South African films with black stars whom we all knew from the old days. On those nights, our little makeshift theatre echoed with the shouts, whistles and cheers that greeted the appearance of an old friend on screen. Later, we were permitted to select documentaries – a form that I preferred – and I began to skip the conventional films. (Although I would never miss a movie with Sophia Loren in it.) The documentaries were ordered from the state library and usually selected by Ahmed Kathrada, who was our section’s librarian. I was particularly affected by a documentary we saw about the great naval battles of the Second World War, which showed newsreel footage of the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales by the Japanese. What moved me most was a brief image of Winston Churchill weeping after he heard the news of the loss of the British vessel. The image stayed in my memory a long time, and demonstrated to me that there are times when a leader can show sorrow in public, and that it will not diminish him in the eyes of his people.

Comments: Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and president of South Africa 1995-1999. He served twenty-seven years in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the state, chiefly serving his time at Robben Island, location for the above anecdote which dates from the 1970s, when his prison conditions had begun to improve. Ahmed Kathrada was imprisoned at the same time as Mandela, following the Rivonia Trial in 1964. Elizabeth Taylor was British, not American. HMS Prince of Wales was sunk in the Pacific in 1941. I have not found any record of film showing Churchill weeping at this news (or any other occasion).

Guerrillas

Source: V.S. Naipaul, Guerrillas (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976 orig. pub. André Deutsch, 1975), pp. 35-37

Text: It was just after eight. Half an hour before the evening cinema shows began, half an hour before the street grew quieter, that precious last half-hour of the evening when, with the relaxed groups on the pavements, the coconut carts doing brisk business, the cafés and the rum-shops, the food-stalls and the oyster-stalls below the shop-eaves, even a little religious meeting going, with the neon lights, the flambeaux smoking in stone bottles, the acetylene lamps like Christmas sparklers, so many pleasures seemed possible. But Bryant was wise now; he was no longer a child; he knew that these moments were cheating. He had money, he had to spend it; it was like a wish to be rid of his money, and it went with the knowledge that it was all waste, that the day would end as it had begun.

[…]

He thought of the cinema. He had seen most of the films; in these country cinemas certain films were shown over and over. When he was younger he used to go to the interracial-sex films with the Negro men as star-boys; they were exciting to see but depressing afterwards, and it was Stephens who had told him that films like that were wicked and could break up a man. He chose the Sidney Poitier double. He went into the shuttered little cinema-house with the noisy electric fans and was along again, the evening almost over.

In the first film Poitier was a man with a gun. Bryant always enjoyed it, but he knew it was made-up and he didn’t allow himself to believe in it. The second film was For the Love of Ivy [sic]. It was Bryant’s favourite; it made him cry but it also made him laugh a lot, and it was his favourite. Soon he had surrendered: seeing in the Poitier of that film a version of himself that no one – but no one, and that was the terrible part – would ever get to know: the man who had died within the body Bryant carried, shown in that film in all his truth, the man Bryant knew himself to be, without the edginess and the anger and the pretend ugliness, the laughing man, the tender joker. Watching the film, he began to grieve for what was denied him: that future in which he became what he truly was, not a man with a gun, a big profession or big talk, but himself, and as himself was loved and readmitted to the house and to the people in the house. He began to sob; and other people were sobbing with him.

The cinema boy scrambled about, turning off the electric fans, creating a kind of silence, opening the exit doors and pulling curtains to shut out the street lights. It was quiet outside; traffic had died down. Bryant was already afraid of the emptiness, the end of the day. He had already come to the end of his money and was as poor as he had been in the morning. The cafés would be closed when the film finished and he went outside; the rum-shops would be closed; there would only be a coconut cart, more full of husks than coconuts, a few people sleeping below the shop eaves, drunks, disordered people, and an old woman in a straw hat selling peeled oranges by the light of a flambeau. There would remain the journey back, the taxi, the walk in the night along roads that would barely glimmer between walls of forest and bush. So even before the film ended he was sad, thinking of the blight that came unfairly on a man, ruining his whole life. A whole life.

Comments: Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (born 1932) is a British/Trinidadian author, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His 1975 novel Guerrillas is concerned with social and political conflict on a unnamed Caribbean island, presumably based on Trinidad, where Naipaul was born. The disaffected young black Bryant is a minor character in the novel, though pivotal to its violent climax. For Love of Ivy (USA 1968 d. Daniel Mann) is a romantic comedy starring Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln, about an African-American maid whose employers engineer a romance with the Poitier character in the hope of persuading her not to leave them. It is notable in film history for being one of the first Hollywood mainstream pictures to feature a romance between two black leads.