BET Continues To Redefine Brand With Nelson Mandela Miniseries

Feb 1, 2017
Originally published on February 1, 2017 11:36 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The centerpiece of the Black History Month programming on the cable channel BET is a miniseries called "Madiba." "Madiba" is a three-night special on the life of Nelson Mandela. It debuts tonight. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has this review.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Laurence Fishburne has the kind of commanding presence that jumps off a movie or TV screen. So it's no wonder that BET drafted the man who once played Thurgood Marshall on Broadway to personify another civil rights hero, Nelson Mandela.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MADIBA")

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Nelson Mandela) I have been called many things in my life, but perhaps they got it most right the first time. Rolihlahla - that was the name my parents gave to me. It means troublemaker.

DEGGANS: Fishburne shows just how much trouble Mandela brought to South Africa's racially oppressive apartheid system in "Madiba." It's a comprehensive look at the leader's life. The title comes from his clan name, which was often used to refer to him with affection and respect.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MADIBA")

FISHBURNE: (As Nelson Mandela) Government keeps pushing and pushing and pushing, but they don't know our strength. They don't know the strength of the South African people.

(APPLAUSE)

DEGGANS: The miniseries comes off as a bit of an oversimplified primer on Mandela and the work by his African National Congress to dismantle apartheid. There are times when it can feel plodding. The beefy Fishburne doesn't look a whole lot like Mandela, and there are an awful lot of scenes with people talking at each other.

But viewers do see Mandela progress from an attorney for victimized black South Africans to a nonviolent protester. Later, he becomes an advocate for the bombing of government buildings. Mandela's justification - the South African government directly inflicted violence on nonviolent protesters in a way the U.S. government did not do in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MADIBA")

FISHBURNE: (As Nelson Mandela) To oppose the armed might of the South African government with passive resistance requires a kind of sacrifice. It requires a level of courage that I no longer have. The fact is if the ANC believes in its vision, it must be prepared to fight for it.

DEGGANS: This is a major project for BET, which teamed with Mandela's grandson, Kweku Mandela, to create the six-hour miniseries. Stephen Hill, BET's president of programming, said "Madiba" is a progression from projects like it's 2015 miniseries on black people during the Revolutionary War, "The Book of Negroes," and its drama about a successful TV news anchor, "Being Mary Jane."

STEPHEN HILL: There's an emotional connection to the characters that we have to be careful to serve, right? That's what people think of "Being Mary Jane," and they see either themselves or their sister friends or someone else in it. "Book of Negroes" was a fantastic historical piece, you know, getting to a piece of history that people didn't necessarily know about.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NEW EDITION STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, New Edition...

DEGGANS: BET's miniseries, "The New Edition Story," which aired just last week, broke ratings records. It drew 29 million viewers over repeated airings and topped social media as black Twitter weighed in.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NEW EDITION")

NEW EDITION: (Singing) Candy girl, you are my world.

DEGGANS: The miniseries is part of an ambitious rollout of scripted shows on BET. Viewers of "The New Edition Story" saw ads promoting "Madiba." Now the channel has moved the debut of its new drama about a historically black college, "The Quad," to air after "Madiba's" debut tonight. Overall, BET will air five high-quality scripted shows before the end of March, including "Rebel," a drama about the tension between black communities and the police from "Boyz N The Hood" director John Singleton.

These are bold steps for a channel once known mostly as a home for music videos and talk shows. But if the quality and scope of "Madiba" is any indication, BET is on the right track, offering well-made shows with compelling stories about black life at a time when the audience's appetite has never been higher. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.