I used to think there was no contest, that Martin Luther King was the greatest history-making figure of my lifetime.
But, as the life and recent death of Nelson Mandela have shown me, that may be as much American chauvinism as anything else – the unavoidable reality of the ’50s and ’60s civil rights struggle in America coinciding with my childhood and adolescence. They were happening at the time of life when I was learning moral values; they were among the most important moral certainties I learned.
When King had already become a giant figure in America, Mandela was still unknown to me. In 1963, the nonviolent Martin Luther King led the historic march on Washington. In that same year, gun-toting revolutionary Nelson Mandela was sentenced to a life in prison.
But then that ignorance was my problem on this side of the pond – and no doubt most of my fellow Americans too.
Before them both was their most important model – Mahatma Ghandi, whom I had to learn about long after the fact.
The idea of some sort of contest in my head to determine who is greater between King and Mandela would, no doubt, have struck them both as ludicrous. But it’s one of those idle speculations that just seem to occur to people who have tried to pay serious attention to everything that’s happened in the world since they’ve been alive.
King’s and Mandela’s lives were, early on, roughly parallel, even to the point of a bus boycott protesting segregation. The difference was that nonviolent King, in the most powerful country on earth, came from local struggles while Mandela, came from national ones in a small African country whose apartheid still, somewhat incredibly after World War II, promulgated blatant racism as a national policy.
And then came that one act that will probably always remain difficult for us infinitely lesser mortals to wrap our heads around: That after 27 years of imprisonment by the South African government, Nelson Mandela forgave his oppressors and enemies and became his country’s president by ensuring the assimilation of all, even the white minority.
It’s certainly what we can imagine King doing. But it’s a fate King never had to suffer. His jailings were brief. And then another, vastly more violent martyrdom, came first.
It’s the American way. Or so it seemed in the chaotic ’60’s.
I’ve just seen Justin Chadwick’s hagiographic and sentimental but powerful film “Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom.” It won’t open in Buffalo until Christmas Day and I’ll be reviewing it that week.
But one obvious thing that needs to be said about this startling movie year 2013 is how spectacular have been its films about both the heroism and the inhuman brutality in the history of race. To have Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” Ryan Coogler’s debut feature “The Fruitvale Station,” and now Chadwick’s “Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom” all in one year is amazing.
And before those films there was “The Help,” a story about race and class in America that had lain fallow and waited for decades to be told.
The easy thing, of course, is to say it’s an unavoidable consequence of living in Obama’s America, that is the first America with a black president with all that entails. (Such as a black family in the White House.)
But I’d say something else which I know is infinitely more debatable but has to be thrown on the table for any rational discussion of the last four decades of American history: Maybe all of this is the logical fallout not just of a post-racial Western world but of a post-Oprah America.
True, she’s not the figure she once was. Her abdication from her syndicated hegemony was more of a setback to her than anyone thought – especially her.
But a lot of people have long argued that without Oprah Winfrey and her Chicago zeitgeist shapers, there would have been no presidency for Sen. Obama of Illinois, the former community organizer from Chicago. By the same token, I don’t think you can overstate how massively powerful that hour of syndicated television was among its audience.
Nothing like it had ever happened before in the annals of American influence. Oprah universalized her race every day. She not only normalized it to the white American majority, she dwarfed everyone in the TV landscape around her.
In the wake of her power, the world of movies couldn’t help but respond eventually to all sorts of black powers behind-the-scenes – particularly the black writers, producers and directors who are able to to make films their way with the complete support of the Anglo-American Entertainment Industrial Complex.
Chadwick, the director of “Mandela” is white, but McQueen is black, as is Ryan Coogler, director of “The Fruitvale Station” and Lee Daniels, director of “The Butler.”
The wildest show in all of prime-time network television – and the one that is the first dramatic show to star a black woman since “Get Christy Love” – is Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal,” whose plot has blown itself to smithereens so many times since it began that the once smugly superior phrase “jumping the shark” no longer has any meaning.
What “Scandal” has proved in prime time is that you can fill any hour you jolly well please with wall-to-wall sharks and allow writers to require actors to turn into high-jumpers over them. And all you’ve done is established The Weekly Series as Improv.
That’s what Rhimes has done. Apparently, when you originally come from far outside the usual precincts – Did I mention that Rhimes is the daughter of academics from, yes, Chicago? – you’re perfectly happy making up the rules for TV show writing as you go along.
Call it a post-Oprah world. It is a commonplace that TV shows and movies by black people and starring black people are now for everyone.
And none of them need white heroes and heroines at the center dispensing largesse either.
It’s all gone now – not just the world of “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” but the world of “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Shaft” too.
The old histories need to be told in new ways. And new history needs to be made. And it’s all become great to watch.