The Man Who Drove With Mandela | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

The Man Who Drove With Mandela 

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White, British-born Cecil Williams was a well-known stage actor and director in South Africa following World War II, but he played his most important role in the backseat of an elegant automobile, where he sat, the embodiment of complacent white privilege, while exiled African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela posed as his chauffeur. Williams actually flubbed his performance--he couldn't resist taking the wheel as he and Mandela drove down dusty back roads, an act of courtesy that drew unwanted attention from sharp-eyed cops. The pair were arrested in 1962; Mandela went to prison, but Williams was held under house arrest in his fashionable high-rise apartment until he fled the country, embittered by the hopelessness of reform. Though Williams spoke out against racism, he was discreet, even furtive, about his homosexuality, aware that his private life as well as his politics invited harassment by "Priscilla," as South African gay people referred to the police. (His straight fellow radicals were unaware of his orientation until he was bashed by thugs.) He died in London in the late 70s, but as this 1998 British-South African coproduction suggests, his legacy lives on in the fact that, under Mandela, South Africa became the first nation to give explicit constitutional protection to homosexuals. Directed by Greta Schiller (Before Stonewall) and written by South African journalist Mark Gevisser, The Man Who Drove With Mandela is a sensitive, technically assured blend of documentary and dramatization. Interviews with people who knew Williams (including Mandela, ANC veteran Walter Sisulu, and film actor Ken Gampu) and period-evoking home movies and newsreel footage (including unintentionally campy wartime clips of seminude servicemen frolicking) are juxtaposed with monologues by Williams, portrayed by Corin Redgrave as a soft-spoken, slightly dandified fellow who ruminates from beyond the grave on topics ranging from his adolescent affair with a scoutmaster to the injustices of apartheid and the crushing restrictions on speech, travel, and association that enforced it. This leisurely paced but tightly constructed film is a fascinating blend of individual and historical narrative, using Williams's personal journey to mirror South Africa's transformation from a British imperial outpost to a fascist republic to a multiracial democracy with a remarkably progressive policy toward gay people. Music Box, Sunday, November 7. --Albert Williams

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