Philly's Kevin Hooks: Time's right for Mandela miniseries 'Madiba'

Laurence Fishburne as Nelson Mandela in "Madiba."

PASADENA, Calif. - Urgent is the word Kevin Hooks uses to describe the message of Madiba, the six-hour mini-series he directed on the life of Nelson Mandela that premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday on BET.

Hooks, who grew up in West Philadelphia and attended Friends' Central, was introduced to directing by producer Bruce Paltrow while playing high school basketball player Morris Thorpe in The White Shadow, and he went on to direct and produce such shows as Prison Break, Philly, and Last Resort.

He had no reason to doubt that Madiba, whose second and third installments will debut on Feb. 8 and 15, would be meaningful when he began work on it two years ago.

But there are things happening in "world politics, in particular, American politics, right now that make this story that much more relevant," he said in an interview this month during the Television Critics Association's winter meetings.

"I do feel like there was a template that was created by the South Africans when they were resisting tyranny and authoritarianism and this evil system of apartheid that we have to be very aware of in today's atmosphere," Hooks said.

"And so, yeah, I do think it's a very, very important and timely piece [premiering] two weeks after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump."

Madiba - the title refers to the name of Mandela's Xhosa clan, by which he was also known - stars Laurence Fishburne as the antiapartheid activist who spent 27 years in prison under a regime controlled by the country's white minority, and who, four years after his release and the collapse of apartheid, was elected president of South Africa.

It's a big story, one that's been told before, but not at this length, and never, BET programming president Stephen Hill noted, with a black director at the helm.

"Why now? Why six hours? What's different about this? I think [2013's Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom] was a wonderful film and I think Idris [Elba, who played Mandela] did just a tremendous job, as he always does. I love him," Hooks said.

"But I think that what happens with any story of this scale is that it's very difficult to fit all of it into a two- or two-and-a-half-hour viewing session that exhibitors sort of require," he said.

Six hours "gave us the opportunity . . . to tell a story that had much more detail to it. Rather than feeling as though we were watching a highlight reel of history, we really were able to slow down and examine why some of those things were happening, and exactly what the determining factors of the strategy, or strategies, were," he said.

Among other things, Madiba traces Mandela's evolution from advocating only passive resistance to a reluctant acceptance of violence in some context.

The mini-series also makes it clear Mandela wasn't alone in the fight, with a deeper look at the once-banned African National Congress and at key figures in the antiapartheid movement, including Oliver Tambo (Orlando Jones, Sleepy Hollow) and Walter Sisulu (David Harewood, Supergirl).

Hooks sees Madiba as a three-part "love story" involving not only Mandela's relationships with women and with his country, but also his deep friendships with those who fought beside him.

In Madiba, Terry Pheto - the South African actress who played Mandela's first wife, Evelyn Mase, in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom - portrays his second, Winnie Mandela, who became a far more controversial figure. (South Africa's commission on truth and reconciliation, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in 1998 found her "politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by" the Mandela United Football Club, whose members, it said, were responsible for at least 18 killings.)

"One of the tragedies of this story is that, in success, Nelson Mandela sacrificed, in large part, his family. He lost a son, and he ultimately went through two failed marriages," one of which was particularly hard, Hooks said.

"Not that they weren't both painful to him, because they were, but, you know, for he and Winnie to stay together, committed to one another, for 27 years while he was incarcerated, and for him to come out and to then have that marriage fall apart, had to be devastating to both of them. I know it was for him, and that's the story we tell," Hooks said.

Filmed on location in Johannesburg, South Africa, and at Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the years he was held, Madiba also gave Hooks the opportunity to check a destination off his bucket list.

"I had never been there before," he said. "I wanted to go there and see it, and be a part of it, the healing."

Cape Town, South Africa, in recent years has developed a thriving production industry - Starz's Black Sails, which returns Sunday for a final season, is among the projects filmed there - but Johannesburg is nearly 900 miles away.

"We were not in the capital of what I would call the industry . . . but we had a great, great crew," Hooks said.

More important, he said, was that "everybody knew the story" they were telling.

"I'd never worked on anything before where you say a name and everybody in the room reacts, no matter who they are. And so the story, and the film, was informed by so many different people who just had this love affair with Nelson Mandela, that every day, and every moment of the day, our knowledge of it, and the depth of the story grew."

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