South Africa, 1958. Red dust, low green hills. A bride and groom make their way through a crowd of swaying villagers who clap and chant a ritual wedding song. Tribesmen draped in striped blankets beat the rhythm on painted drums. After the marriage feast, the couple walk in the countryside. She gathers the train of her bridal dress with one hand; the other is intertwined in his. "If only we didn't have to go back," he says. She looks up, all fresh anticipation. "I wonder what our life will be like?" she asks. Then: "I know one thing. Life with you is life without you."
These stark words foreshadow the next 29 years in the life of Nelson Mandela, the spiritual leader of South Africa's black majority, who is now serving a life sentence for sabotage and plotting revolution. Starring Danny Glover as Nelson and Alfre Woodard as his wife Winnie, Mandela, an HBO movie premiering Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. EDT, traces the couple's unfinished struggle against institutionalized racism in South Africa. It is also the melancholy love story of Winnie, now 50, and Nelson, 69, who wed during a break in his trial for treason and honeymooned while he was in the dock. Because of his political activities and 25-year-long imprisonment, the pair have spent only a few months of their married life together.
Mandela is Hollywood's first major effort to present South Africa's racial troubles to an American mass audience. The movie is already under attack. Even before he saw it, the Rev. Jerry Falwell referred to it as "Communist propaganda" and threatened a Moral Majority boycott of HBO during September. Claiming that Mandela is "pro-terrorist," Citizens for Reagan, a lobbying group, has said it will call on its 100,000 members to cancel their HBO subscriptions. In response, HBO Chairman Michael Fuchs declared that viewers should make up their own minds about the movie.
The struggle against apartheid is a story whose time has come for the film industry. Camille Cosby, wife of Comedian Bill Cosby, owns the rights to Winnie Mandela's autobiography and plans to produce a TV movie about her. The Mandelas figure prominently in an ABC-TV historical mini-series, still in the works, which has excited the interest of Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Jane Fonda. Three theatrical movies probing racial conflict in South Africa are on the way. The first and most prestigious of the three is Cry Freedom, directed by Sir Richard Attenborough (Gandhi). Due in early November, it explores the friendship between Stephen Biko (Denzel Washington), the black leader who died in prison after police interrogation, and Donald Woods, a white anti-apartheid newspaper editor (Kevin Kline). Coming next spring is Atlantic's A World Apart, about a family caught in the racial strife of the 1960s, with Barbara Hershey. Also planned: The Long Weekend, to star Julian Sands as Neil Aggett, the first white activist to die in jail.