Chatting w/ Orlando Jones & Director Kevin Hooks About BET’s ‘Madiba’ & Uncovering Nelson Mandela (Premieres Tonight)

Still from the miniseries, "Madiba". (Photo: Marcos Cruz)

Still from the miniseries, “Madiba”. (Photo: Marcos Cruz)

There have been many films and documentaries about Anti-Apartheid leader and South African President Nelson Mandela’s expansive life. However with BET’s EPIC three-part miniseries, “Madiba,” viewers will finally get a comprehensive and personal story of the man who became a legend.

Starring Emmy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated actor, Laurence Fishburne as Nelson Mandela and Orlando Jones as African National Congress leader and lawyer, Oliver Tambo, “Madiba” is being helmed by Kevin Hooks who is the first African-American director to take on Mandela’s life and legacy. Told over the course of three nights, this six-hour long miniseries, will follow Nelson Mandela’s story from his humble beginnings as a young rural boy to his election as the first Black President of South Africa. The mini-series will also pay homage to the many lesser known men and women who sacrificed and suffered alongside him in their quest for freedom.

Recently, I sat down to chat with director Kevin Hooks and actor Orlando Jones to discuss the expansive project, what they learned from Mandela’s journey and what we can all take away from his legacy.

Aramide Tinubu: Hi Mr. Jones how are you?

Orlando Jones: I’m really good, how are you?

AT: I’m fantastic thanks!

OJ: You know what? I think I am also fantastic; we share that. (Laughing)

AT: (Laughing) Great! Hi Mr. Hooks.

Kevin Hooks: Hi Aramide.

AT: Mr. Hooks, what drew you to this project? You’ve had such a long career in film so what made you decide you wanted to take on Nelson Mandela’s story? Was it a passion project for you?

KH: Well listen, I wish that I could say that it was a passion project of mine. I’ve always idolized Nelson Mandela since I became aware of him in the mid-1970’s when the United States really started to be much more vocal about the Anti-Apartheid Movement. So, I’ve always been a big fan, but the reality of it is that the project came to me. Lance Samuels came to my agents and said, “We are looking at various directors that may be interested in this project, and we’d like to meet Kevin.” So, I sat down and had dinner with Lance and a couple of his co-producers in Los Angeles. I had read the first four hours of the film at the time of the meeting, and I was very intrigued. I was like, “Ok, this is really something that resonates with me.” I think a lot of it has to do with the similarities between the Civil Rights movement here, and the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa.

AT: Oh, most certainly.

KH: So, having grown up in the 1960’s, I really felt like that resonated with me. I was very interested in doing it, and I met with the producers once or twice after that and was ultimately asked to take the project on. It found me. I did not find it.

AT: There have been several other films about Mandela over the past few years, but this one is very lengthy and dives into various aspects of his life. How is it different from other projects that we’ve seen recently?

OJ: Well, I think part of the issue that has always existed is if you think you know the story of apartheid because you know the name Nelson Mandela, you truly can’t see the forest through the trees. Nelson was very much the spear, but the force behind him was a huge group of people over a long period of time. So, the endeavor was that no one has ever told that story.

AT: Not at all.

OJ: They have laid out what happened, but the interesting part of it which is what Nelson wanted people to know, was that it wasn’t just him alone. It was Oliver Tambo, his best friend who started the first Black law firm in South Africa. It was Walter Sisulu, who was already running the African National Congress (ANC) youth league who really groomed Nelson along with Oliver; it was Ruth First and Joe Slovo, and all of these people. It was Muslims and Jews and Christians and predominately Africans but some whites. It was really a multicultural group of people who took apart that heinous system. So to tell that story for the first time over the course of seventy-five years, it can’t be done in two hours, there isn’t enough time. It can’t be done in three, and we’re just getting below the surface of it in six. It’s wonderful to get to meet these people as humans as opposed to meeting them as heroes because when I look at things like Black Lives Matters and all of the things that are happening today it’s the exact things that they were fighting…

AT: Yes! It’s insane how we’ve gone back in time.

OJ: Yeah, it’s like, “Wow!” and it’s an amazing time because it reminds us that as African-Americans, our African ancestors actually did find a way to peacefully resolve the heinous circumstances that they were in. There is a blueprint for the change that we seek, so, for me, I think all of those elements are why I wanted to do this project and why this project is important, and this is why we wanted to do it now.

AT: Mr. Hooks, had Laurence Fishburne signed on to the project to play Nelson Mandela by the time you came on board?

KH: Laurence was not attached to it when I came on board but, when we started to talk about actors; Laurence was always at the top of my list. We’ve known each other for many many years, and we’ve worked together before, and we’re friends. He is just an immensely talented actor. I had heard that he always wanted to play Mr. Mandela, and I thought this could work out really well. So, we were very fortunate to get him to commit to it, and I’m sure not without some trepidation. He talks about the story of having said, “Yes” and fifteen minutes later sort of collapsing under the weight of the decision he had just made. But he was always someone who I thought would make a wonderful Mandela. In fact, I could not be happier with what he brought to the piece.

AT: Mr. Jones, since you play Oliver Tambo, what research did you have to do in order to embody this figure who had so much to do with dismantling apartheid in South Africa? To be honest, I don’t know very much about him myself.

OJ: Absolutely, it’s understandable. I remember meeting with his son Dali Tambo and he was really anxious to talk about the role. His father was in exile for thirty years and really did some extraordinary things for some very extraordinary reasons. So, one of the things that first stuck out to us was Oliver Tambo was for some reason the person they selected to be sent off to exile. The group knew obviously the South African government was going to come after them. They were like somebody has to leave the country and keep this thing going when they arrest us. They were like, “Oliver that’s going to be you.” And Oliver is like, “What are ya’ll talking about? I’m not leaving my country!” Less than a week and a half later, he literally fled the country and brought his family afterward and set up the ANC in exile. One of the first things he did was to use the Angleton Church to smuggle in all of the money to fight apartheid through priests. He was a really fascinating man with a fascinating mind for how to fight systemic oppression. Again, a really brilliant lawyer and for him more than anything, Nelson was his best friend, and he managed to get his best friend and his comrades out of prison and then died and had to hand to his best friend the thing he didn’t want to give him. His best friend after being institutionalized for twenty-seven years in a prison now had to figure out how to run a country. For Nelson, that was the most frightening, terrifying thing ever. He was like, “I’ve been in prison; I can’t do this.” And Oliver’s answer was, “You have to because I am dying.” So, that life, those men, those women, those people, I think is really why for all of us this project is so special.

AT: Mr. Hooks, you’re actually the first Black director to tell Mandela’s story. How is your vision of Mandela’s life different as a Black man telling a story about Black people who changed the world?

KH: I can’t really speak to what I brought to the piece, I can only speak to how it impacted me as a filmmaker, and I think that for me, it resonated for the reasons that I mentioned earlier. Having grown up as a young African-American in the ‘60s, which was really the height of the Civil Rights Movement in my lifetime, there was so much taking place during that decade. I think I had a specific take on this material because of that. I think it directly related to the experience of this film. So, I was hoping to bring that to it. How that sort of translates to what you see on film is intangible quite frankly. I think there have been a number of very good filmmakers who have made good movies about Nelson Mandela, so I take nothing away from that. But, I do think that there is something unique about your experience of living through something very similar that adds to the depth of what your vision is going to be.

OJ: I think there are certain factual elements that come to bear here that are significant. White people do not know racism. Black people and people of color, know racism. It is a very different thing to know it intellectually than to experience it. It’s the same way Black people don’t know particularly in an American context what white privilege feels like. We don’t know that experience, we can pretend we know everything about it, but we don’t. They don’t know our experience; we don’t know theirs. So, for a Black man to be telling this story having the closest experience to the experiences that these men had, I think is extremely significant. I think it’s what speaks to me. This speaks to me as a Black man so openly because I can speak to the weight of it. The mini-series also had South African financiers and it’s a predominantly South African cast. So, for South African actors, in particular, it’s their legacy. And, they are extraordinary in their roles; top-notch. I think all of those factors do bear weight and do make this story different. Kevin’s direction of this is exemplary. It’s extraordinary what he was able to do and the scope he was able to cover. It’s really beautifully done; the thing I am certainly most proud of in my career.

AT: That’s wonderful! I actually got back from South Africa on Monday and just going through Johannesburg and Cape Town, it’s such a beautiful country. So, what was the process like for you working on this film? How long did it take? What was your research process?

KH: Obviously with something of this magnitude, the first thing you do is you start reading everything that you can. “Madiba” is based on a couple of books by Nelson Mandela, “Conversations with Myself” and “Nelson Mandela by Himself.” I went out, and my first order of business was just to soak up his story before I got to South Africa. Then, I went to South Africa for the first time a little over a year before we started shooting. I went and immediately began to soak up the culture there and the history of this story within the country. I went to the Apartheid Museum, The Nelson Mandela Foundation where I was able to sit with the head curator and his staff, and I was really able to do some discovery about his philosophies. I was able to get beyond the reading and ask some questions of the people whose job it is to study Nelson Mandela. I wanted to make sure I could understand the material that much better and the nuances of that material. The biggest thing with a project like this for me is to get underneath what everyone’s expectations are. There is the text, and then there is the subtext, so it’s really up to us to bring the subtext in. I knew that was only possible if the story was second nature to me and I understood the story and these characters on a deeper level.
OJ: So, we were there for about two and half months. We came in and shot in Johannesburg; there were some elements in Mozambique but mostly Joburg was the primary location; everything was filmed there. There were locations we used where the scenes we were shooting actually happened. We replicated the scale and size of Robben Island on a sound stage. When you go visit Robben Island, we did an exact scale model to it. All of those elements are what my experience was with this project but, I’ve been to South Africa three or four other times. I’ve shot three other projects there, and I’ve toured there doing stand-up, so the country was familiar to me. But, being there, shooting this and going to the same locations where stuff happened, it was a lot to process. I think I’m still processing the gravity of that and what they were able to accomplish and how they were able to accomplish with just their sheer will and determination. They didn’t have nothing else.

AT: We spoke briefly about things that are happening today and how we’ve cycled back in time to a repressive government. What can we learn as citizens from Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo and these other men and women who were involved in dismantling apartheid in South Africa as we continue to resist our current government?

OJ: Well, I think you cannot change an organization from outside. You can only change an organization from within. Also, destroying an organization is not as efficient as reforming an organization to have it do better, to have it do what it was designed to do, which is to service all of the people. So, I really feel that the division that we find now, there is a lot of emotion from both sides and everyone has their good reasons because everybody has their own perspective and circumstances. I think it’s less about what we disagree with and more about spending the time as these gentlemen did, to discover what they did agree with and figuring out if the ideals that people claim to hold were really worth dying for. They decided that they were, and they fought for those ideals to ultimately be upheld. So for me, that’s very different than yelling at somebody because you disagree with their politics or beliefs. It’s a very different thing. Without finding conversations and ways that we can bridge gaps and to communicate with each other, we will forever be the people screaming at each other from opposite sides of the fence and that generally doesn’t work out well for anyone.

AT: No, it doesn’t.

OJ: I think that’s the blueprint that they left in our hands. I think now it’s about if we have the courage to find a way to communicate with individuals we may have previously found deplorable. If we can find the humanity in them, then I think we can move forward.

KH: I think there are a couple of things. I want to be clear about one thing, and that’s one of the things that impressed me about Mr. Mandela as I learned more about him was how selfless he truly was. He was a very reluctant hero. He did not seek to be the leader of the ANC or to be the first Black president of South Africa. These things were results. It was the end of a journey. These were the things that had to happen for that journey to be complete. I’m not saying that it is complete, but the point of the matter of it was that for him it was always about a number of other people. It was the contributions of other people that made it so effective. With that being said, Laurence [Fishburne ] said something the other night; he said something to the effect of “In order to affect real change, you have to get involved.” I think that’s what’s significant about the liberation of South Africa. It’s that people got involved. People of all walks of life, of all colors, of all religions, they all came together to overcome this evil system of apartheid. So I think that’s the key thing. We have to get involved, and we have to have a singular voice in order to truly affect change. That’s probably a lesson that we can learn from this template that was set up for us in South Africa. This is why I think now more than ever it’s not only very relevant but urgently relevant for us to understand.

AT: What did you learn about yourself while making this film?

KH: Wow…. That’s a heavy one. I think that when you undertake something like this, that’s six hours and is such a massive canvas that this story takes place on, it really does test everything that you thought about your story telling techniques and so on and so forth. So for me, that’s such a tough question. It’s like climbing Mount Everest in a way. You don’t know if you can get halfway through it and you just sort of feel like, “I don’t have anything else left.” But, what I think happens is that you’re inspired so much by the story and by the legend that it almost sweeps you up and takes you on a ride that you can never anticipate. Just like Laurence sort of collapsed when he realized what he was undertaking, I think I did the same thing. I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know what I would be like afterward. But, I feel fulfilled in a way that I never have before as a filmmaker because I feel like I’ve tackled one of the greatest stories every told and I’m pretty satisfied with what we have accomplished. [Laughing] That’s a long answer to a difficult question.

AT: [Laughing] I’m glad I could stump you!

OJ: I learned that I am privileged. I am extremely privileged. When you get to experience a bit of how other people live and the circumstances they’ve had to overcome, to me, I think I got a lot clearer perspective on some of the things I might have previously complained about in my life. I should have been ashamed of myself for doing so because I am deeply privileged. Also, I learned that if I truly believed in the conditions that I claim to believe in, then I need to be less apathetic and do a better job of trying to create the changes that I seek. One thing in particular about Oliver Tambo that really stuck out at me was when he said, “I am not a Christian unless it means fighting exploitation, oppression, and repression. That’s not the type of Christianity I believe in. I believe that religion has a duty to fight those things.” No one ever framed it that way to me before or put it so clearly.

AT: Not at all, not ever.

OJ: We talk about feeling like a second class citizen in your country; feeling subhuman and what that does to a person and what that tension does and how that happens along racial lines and gender lines; that feelings of making sure someone feels like they are subhuman. Those ideas, I understood them before, but I came to understand them in a far more deep way looking at what [Mandela] had to overcome versus the things that I thought were obstacles for me. So I learned huge lessons. I was really just overwhelmed by the incredible artistry and the wisdom of the people I got to spend time with. It was a blessed time in South Africa, and a blessed time on this project, so that wraps up my experience.

AT: That’s so amazing. Well, I’m so excited to present your thoughts on “Madiba” to our readers and for everyone to see the project that you all have worked so hard on. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

OJ: Are you kidding me, please? I look forward to speaking with you again. As soon as you said,“I just got back from South Africa.” I was like girl, why didn’t you just say that from the jump.

AT: (Laughing) It’s a beautiful country.

OJ: Seriously, the feeling that you get, people think you are making up like some hocus pocus, but it feels different. You can’t explain it.

AT: Thank you so much for speaking with me.

OJ: Thank you!

KH: Thank you so much, it was nice talking to you. Be well.

Premiering during Black History Month, “Madiba” will run over the course of three weeks in two-hour installments starting Wednesday, February 1 at 8 PM ET/PT on BET. Watch a trailer for the event series below:


Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami

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