‘Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom’ And America’s Fear Of Black Men


Credit: Moviefone

Credit: Moviefone

My biggest question about Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, the upcoming biopic of the South African leader, starring Idris Elba, is whether it would have the guts to acknowledge one of the reasons he was imprisoned: the fact that he’d co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, the militant wing of the struggle against apartheid, and was part of a bombing campaign targeting South Africa’s racist government. To my surprise and gratification, it seems like Umkhonto we Sizwe will be at the center of the movie:

It’s easy to admire Nelson Mandela when you think of him only as a prisoner of conscience, or a grandfatherly figure bringing his country together through rugby. It’s easy for white observers to cheer Jackie Robinson for rising into Major League Baseball through his talent, and for having the strength not to fight back when he was attacked on the field with high-speed pitches and cleat spikes. It’s easy to venerate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose commitment to non-violence made him a moral exemplar before he was assassinated, and a martyr after he was killed. It’s a rather different thing to see a black man refuse to neutralize himself, to stop rendering himself palatable to white people who are afraid of him, and to say “For fifty years we have been talking peace and non-violence. Not anymore.”

As John Roman wrote on the Urban Institute’s MetroTrends blog earlier this week “Drawing from Supplemental Homicide Reports (SHR) submitted by local law enforcement to the FBI between 2005 and 2010, we see that in cases with a white shooter and a white victim, the shooting is ruled to be justified less than 2 percent of the time. If the shooter is black and the victim is white, the rate of justifiable homicide rulings drops to almost 1 percent. However, if the shooter is white and the victim is black, it is ruled justified in 9.5 percent of cases in non-Stand Your Ground (SYG) states. In SYG states, the rate is even higher—almost 17 percent.”

America is a place where many see black people as so dangerous that they have a hard time accepting that they could be acting in their own defense in one-on-one situations where they claim to have been attacked. It’s a country where Fox News can make hay stoking fears of a New Black Panther Party that’s a tiny, wildly marginal organization, and where Trayvon Martin is threatening because he was black and wearing one of the most common, banal staples of the American wardrobe. Given the depth of our national anxieties about black men, I’ll be wildly curious to see how white audiences react to a movie that’s about a black man–even one we’ve been taught to read as a badass through cultural artifacts like The Wire and Pacific Rim–taking up arms against the state, especially when it’s a story that disrupts the rather comforting, physically non-threatening global image of Nelson Mandela.