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Goodbye Bafana
Genre Biography
Year: 2007
 
Review:

Goodbye Bafana is a biographical drama based on the memoirs of Nelson Mandela’s prison guard, James Gregory. The two men were inextricably linked from Mandela’s days on Robben Island in 1968 through to his imprisonment in Pollsmoor in the late 1980s. The story centres on Gregory, played by Joseph Fiennes, who was commissioned to watch over Mandela thanks to his firm grasp of Xhosa. Diane Kruger stars alongside Fiennes as his doting wife, Gloria Gregory, who is a bastion of strength. The story is connected to one of South Africa’s most famous historical figures and some of its most recognisable landmarks. While the era of Apartheid forms the backdrop for one of democracy’s biggest triumphs.

Joseph Fiennes is convincing as Gregory and performs well when it comes to mastering the South African accent and Xhosa. His performance is marked by his melancholic steely eyes that mask the creeping despair of his double-sided life. Diane Kruger is a solid equal to Fiennes and warms to her supporting role as Gloria. While their relationship is important, it is not as crucial as Gregory’s friendship with Mandela. Dennis Haysbert has the difficult job of portraying Mandela’s graceful presence and power. Haysbert’s size helps in conveying the man’s stature, and he handles the finer details with relative ease. However, his role is toned down by the script, which deftly tip-toes around the giant without losing focus on its central character.

James Gregory arrives fresh from Kroonstad and ready to make a name for himself on Robben Island, the island under the Sun. The young prison guard quickly wins the respect of his superiors and starts climbing the prison ranks. His close dealings with Mandela result in a unexpected kinship that echoes from his childhood in the Transkei shared with his friend Bafana. Deep down James Gregory realises the inherent flaws in the system, but chooses to deny his true feelings until Mandela inspires him to look to the future. Gregory was a cog in the Apartheid machine, but Goodbye Bafana shows the far-reaching implications of his role as an “informant” at Robben Island.

Bille August has a wealth of history and a plethora of beauty to unearth in this biographical piece. The director’s choice to shoot on-location whenever possible adds to the authenticity of the experience. The film doesn’t idealise the past, and bursts with derogatory racist scenes and remarks. The offensive material is important in establishing a group think racism and fear amongst the white prison guards and civilians. The blanket of Apartheid is represented from bus seating segregation to police brutality. Each aspect shows a South Africa under the grips of a struggle in which information is power. While the whites are represented as hateful, fearful or ignorant. The production values are high and each decade is depicted accurately from radio broadcasts to old South Africa memorabilia.

Goodbye Bafana is entertaining as a drama and fascinating as an exploration into the darkest reaches of South African history. The memoirs take a retrospective journey that is fueled by one man’s transition and impact on a country’s history. Mandela was willing to die for his ideals, and Gregory was given the ability to see the truth. The emotional torment is delivered in the form of alienation, discrimination, isolation and re-integration. Bille August’s film walks a fine line between history and drama. The profound changes in Gregory’s life never overflow into melodrama, and the script doesn’t stray into a straight history lesson based on the cold hard facts. The power of the film is laced in the contrast between Gregory and Mandela. Gregory’s path was complicated by apathy and fear, while Mandela’s honorable disposition and principles forged ahead. Goodbye Bafana is an eye-opening tour of South Africa’s most famous chapters and is compelling as a behind-enemy-lines account from a prison guard.

The bottom line: Profound.

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