Entertainment » Movies

The Man Who Drove With Mandela

by Sue Katz
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Jul 29, 2010
The Man Who Drove With Mandela

When Mandela was arrested in 1962--the start of an historic prison stay--Cecil Williams was driving the car they were in. Cecil was not supposed to be driving; Mandela was. Who was Cecil Williams? He was the guy many people say was responsible for South Africa being the first country to lock gay rights into the national constitution.

It is hard to believe that the same director, Greta Schiller, who made Paris is a Woman and Before Stonewall, also made this film. Half documentary and half docu-drama, it is more like a draft than a polished film. It's a shame the film is somewhat less compelling than such a subject deserves.

Cecil Williams was a gay white Englishman with progressive views, a leading producer in the South African theater. He had arrived in Johannesburg in the late 1920s. His life was transformed, like that of so many people around the world, by World War II, when he faced his gayness. Once he joined the Communist Party and the anti-apartheid movement, he had to figure out a role for himself. Being a fighter was sure to wrinkle his linen suit.

His post-war sexual openness as a high-profile freedom fighter impacted others in the movement, in mainly unspoken ways. Said Albie Sachs, the heroic ANC lawyer turned judge, "Cecile raised our consciousness on these issues by the way he lived." Increasingly, the privilege of whiteness was no longer enough to keep white activists out of trouble, as the regime began arresting them.

Williams received an assignment he felt suited him. Mandela was being sought by South African law enforcement, and Williams posed as the employer of a chauffeur who was, in fact, Mandela. However, Williams made a mistake and at one point took over the driving, leading to the arrest of both of them. (It was the day Marilyn Monroe died.) Williams made a deal and was released the next morning. He quickly boarded a plane to England--his lover followed--where he died in 1979. Mandela went to jail, and the rest is history.

The welcome use of fresh interview material, in combination with exceptional archive footage and dramatized scenes featuring Corin Redgrave playing Cecil Williams, does not entirely work, mainly because the context is too sparsely titled and people too infrequently identified. Sometimes one does not know if the footage is fiction or fact. The timeline is hazy, the title of the film forgettable, and an affectation used for both the beginning and the abrupt end is annoying.

That said, this is a story just waiting to be told. There is a lot to learn from the interviewees, not the least about Cecil Williams himself, who is scarcely a household name. The complexity of Williams' fears--as a queer and a radical--is well-served by the film; unfortunately the movie feels unfinished.

Sue Katz is a "wordsmith and rebel" who has been widely published on the three continents where she has lived. She used to be proudest of her 20-year martial arts career, her world travel, and her edgy blog Consenting Adult (suekatz.typepad.com), but now she's all about her collection of short stories about the love lives of older people, Lillian's Last Affair.


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