The Color of Freedom (a.k.a. Goodbye Bafana) (2007)




Director:     Bille August.

Starring:     Joseph Fiennes (James Gregory),  Dennis Haysbert (Nelson Mandela),  Diane Kruger (Gloria Gregory),  Shiloh Henderson (Brett Gregory),  Tyrone Keogh (Brett Gregory),  Patrick Lyster (Maj Pieter Jordaan),  Faith Ndukwana (Winnie Mandela).

story of the special relationship between Mandela and his jailor


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

In South Africa 20 million blacks are ruled by a minority of four million whites under the brutal Apartheid regime.  Blacks have no vote, land rights, freedom of movement or equitable opportunity to housing, employment or education.  Determined to retain power, the government bans all opposition organizations, forcing their leaders into exile or imprisoning them, some for life, on Robben Island. 

Sgt. Gregory is transferred from the prison at Kronstad to the prison on Robben Island.  The captain at the prison says that Robben Island is a totally different ball game.  Mrs. Gloria Gregory tells her two children that the prisoners on the island are terrorists.  The captain gives the family a ride to their new home in the prison housing section. 

James Gregory grew up with blacks and speaks Xhosa, but now he hates all black commies and apparently, in his world, all blacks are commies.  James will be in B-section where the great South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela is held.  The sergeant's new position is to be in charge of the censorship office and report anything he finds directly to Pretoria.  

James speaks to the assembled prisoners in the enclosed prison yard.  They are entitled to write a letter every six months, but in the letter there can be no mention of politics and no mention of other prisoners or prison conditions.   James wants to know where Mandela is and is told he is locked up in solitary confinement.  The sergeant goes to speak with Mandela, but, playing the tough guy, he only barks at him through the small slit in the door.  Mandela has his back to him and ignores him. 

Six months later.  When Winnie Mandela arrives to see her husband, James refuses to shake hands with her.  He instructs her to only speak in English and only of family matters.  Winnie tells Nelson that the girls are being harassed.  James terminates the visit when they speak Xhosa. 

James reports to his boss in Pretoria that Mandela told her to instruct Oliver Tambo to escalate the armed struggle because they must make the country ungovernable.  The boss says that when Winnie gets back to Johannesburg she will be detained indefinitely.  This will be a big news item and the boss wants James to make sure that Mandela gets a news clipping of the event. 

At home the neighbor ladies tease James for being a Kaffir-lover.  His wife laughs and goes to get his old photo album.  One of the women laughs and says he even has his arm around the little nigger. 

James receives a news clipping about Winnie being arrested.  He sticks the clipping in a prominent place so that Mandela will be sure to find it.  But Mandela turns the tables on James.  He gives the clipping back to James saying that he should know that such items are strictly forbidden to prisoners. 

One of the officer's wives tells Gloria that James is definitely officer material.  She will speak with her husband Piet about it.  Gloria is very grateful to the woman. 

The Gregory family go on a trip to see the children's maternal grandmother.  James sees the police checking the blacks for their passes.  Those that don't have them are badly beaten.  This upsets the children a great deal, especially Natasha.  Back at home James has to talk to his daughter who is still upset.  She asks him:  "Why didn't you stop that policeman?"  She also wants to know if their family has a pass.  Gloria explains to Natasha that the inequality between blacks and whites is natural. 

James receives a telegram for Mandela informing him of the death of his son in a car accident.  The young prison guard working near James says "good riddance".  James scolds him for his statement.  He takes the note out to the prison work area and gives the telegram to Mandela.  The guard tells Mandela to keep working.  But James informs the official that in cases of the death of a close relative, the prisoner may have two day off from hard labor.  The guard was going to make Mandela just keep working. 

James is bothered by the car accident and death of Mandela's son.  He wonder:  "What if it was murder?"  The security forces could have killed him and made it look like an accident.  He can't sleep at night and remembers playing with Bafana as a kid. 

James tells Mandela that he is sorry about the death of his son.  Mandela was often absent from home and he says that his son never understood his many absences.  James lives in a dream world clouded by the lies/propaganda spread by the South African government and society.  He refers to Mandela's communist friends in the ANC (African National Congress).  James believes that they are out to destroy all the whites.  Mandela objects to this statement saying that they are for equal rights for all, including whites.  The African leader says he just wants to live in peace and raise his family.   

James tells Mandela's associate Motsadi to inform Mandela that his son was buried yesterday. 

On a trip to see grandmother James gets off the bus telling his family that he is going to pop into Roeland Street Prison.  But Gloria knows that the stop is not for Roeland Street.  Suspicious she demands to get off the bus.  James goes to the library.  The banned literatures section of the library is downstairs.  He tells the librarian that he would like to see the Freedom Charter written by Mandela and other South African black leaders.  The librarian tells him that this is a restricted area.  James has to do some fancy footwork to convince the librarians that he has authorization to see the document.  He tells the librarians that his boss wants him to read it.  When he finally gets to look over the document, his wife and children show up.  (James grabs the one-page document, folds it and puts it in his pocket for future reading.)  Gloria demands to know:  "How can you lie to me?"  (His wife is a real right-winger on the question of race relations.)  She scolds her husband that he is risking his possible promotion to warrant officer.  After all, she says, the Prison Service is all they have. 

James speaks with Mandela in the prison yard.  Suddenly from the watch tower an officer shouts at James for fraternizing with the prisoners.  He tells James to report to him.  James is worried about being busted down in rank, but it turns out that it was a joke.  The officer tells James congratulations, he has been promoted to warrant officer. 

At work checking the prison letters, James finds a hidden message in a postcard meant for Jonas Motsadi.  He telephones his boss, who tells him to put the message back and give the postcard to Motsadi.  Soon after, James learns from the radio that Motsadi was killed in Gaborone, Botswana along with several other activists.  This upsets James for he suspects he is now responsible for the death of Motsadi.  (There will be many others to come.)

Mandela asks James to give Winnie a piece of chocolate from him.  James is scared about being caught, but agrees to take the chocolate to Winnie.  When he sees Winnie he sees that the authorities have beaten her pretty badly.  He gives her the chocolate.  Soon afterwards, James learns that an uncensored letter got through the system.  James is called in and is read the riot act:  "You are playing Santa Claus."  As punishment he is given night duty in B-section on off weekends. 

The wife of Piet comes to James's house to shout at him.  Piet is being transferred to Barberton because of the chocolate scandal.  He was accused for running too lax of an operation.  Now he won't make lieutenant.  A hard ass named Stander now takes over. 

February 1976.  Stander lays down the law to the prison staff.  His philosophy is that the guards are at war with the prisoners.  James doesn't like the new fellow or his philosophy.  A little later the crack down begins on the prisoners.  Some of the prisoners are striped naked and hit with batons.  One fellow is tied to the flag pole staff for days. 

James discovers that he is getting the cold shoulder from his fellow guards and their wives.  In the local bar two of the guards insult his wife and when James reacts they beat him badly.  He goes home to find his wife just sitting in a chair staring blankly.  There is going to be a tea party for Colonel Stander's wife to welcome her to the island.  But Gloria is not invited.  They don't want any "Kaffir-lovers' wives".   Gloria had been making some extra money by doing hair styling, but now none of the women will have her style their hair.  She asks her husband to transfer to a small prison on the mainland.  James is glad to hear this because he wants off the island too. 

Mr. Kruger, the Minister of Prisons, arrives to offer Mandela a deal.  If Mandela will stop the armed struggle, he and his family will be allowed to live in the Transkei.  Mandela is not interested.  James's boss turns down his request for a transfer.  He says that, because of his good relationship to Mandela, he is too valuable to transfer.  But James now feels that the country is too violent for his family.  He doesn't want to raise his children in a nation wracked by racial hatred and violence.  James hands in his resignation.  His boss, however, still needs him.  So the boss makes an offer.  He will transfer him and his family to the mainland to a place near his wife's mother's house.  He can work from there.  James accepts.

April 1982.   James's son is now at the university.  James learns that Mandela always asks after him.  A big Free Mandela Campaign begins to have a big influence.  The international sanctions imposed on South Africa have virtually crippled the country's economy. 

The boss still trusts James.  At home James receives a telephone call telling him to report to Brigadier Morkel at Pollsmoor at 8 p.m.  Reporting to Morkel James is introduced to General Voster of the National Intelligence Service.  They are transferring James to Pollsmoor to work with Mandela and four other prisoners.  They have decided to ease the restrictions on the prisoners.  After 18 years on Robben Island Mandela will be coming to Pollsmoor.  Gloria is not happy to be sent to Pollsmoor.  James protests that he had no choice.  He tells her:  "Maybe they're ready to negotiate."  Gloria thinks he is naive, but James says all this violence and sanctions simply cannot go on.  His wife finally consents to go.

Mandela comes to Pollsmoor.  James greets him in the prison and introduces his son Brent (working as a guard) to him.  The prisoners don't understand why they were moved.  After a few days, James finally tells them that they were moved because they were exercising too much influence on the other prisoners on the island. 

Mandela works on his tomato garden.  James sees him practicing his stick fighting techniques.  So he picks up two sticks and challenges Mandela.  Mandela is surprised but agrees to the challenge.  They fight and Mandela wins hitting James with a blow to the back of his leg.  Mandela is gracious in victory and is impressed that not only does James know their language, but also other important parts of their culture.  

A car bomb goes off killing 17.  James complains to Mandela saying that he could stop it if he wanted to.  Mandela explains the true nature of the struggle and James calms down a bit. 

On television President Botha says that he will consider Mandela's release if he rejects violence as a political instrument. 

Mandela receives more freedom.  They now let him meet with his family in the lawyer room.  There will no longer be any glass between Mandela and his family.  Mandela asks if he will be able to touch.  Yes.  He becomes concerned and tells James about his wife:  "I haven't touched her in 21 years."  James assures him he will do all right.  In the room he is able to hug his wife, a daughter and a grandson. 

A daughter of Nelson Mandela speaks about her father to a large crowd.  She shouts:  "Power to the people!" 

Gloria is scared to death.  She received death threats for her and her family on the phone.  James immediately calls Brigadier Morkel and demands 24 hour protection for his family.  Morkel agrees. 

General Voster meets with Morkel and tells him that they are not negotiating with the ANC, but will have to make it look like they are negotiating. 

For his family's safety, James is transferred to a farm prison outside Paarl known as Victor Verster.  A farmhouse there is available. 

December 1988.  Gloria is excited about her new home.  In town James thinks he's being followed.  He grabs the man trailing him and the fellow has to quickly tell James that he works for the intelligence service and his job is to guard his family.  After looking at his identification card, James lets him go. 

President Botha has a minor stroke.  Brent finished his last exam and will soon graduate with a degree.  He will drive home at night. 

At night the phone rings waking James from his sleep.  His son has died in a car accident.  James cries saying that God is paying him back for his part in the murders of so many activists.  He says:  "I sent those men to their deaths."  Gloria comforts him and he tells her:  "Forgive me, please, forgive me."  Later James receives a letter from Mandela offering his and his family's deepest condolences to James and his family for the death of his son.  Concerned about his mental health, Morkel visits him.  He tells him that Botha has resigned and de Klerk is taking over.  He says that this de Klerk is a different kind of man from Botha.  And de Klerk wants to meet Mandela face to face.  And, frankly, they need James to set up the meeting.   

Mandela walks with James.  He tells James that he still thinks of his son and his death.  In fact, Mandela is very compassionate toward James. 

Christmas.  James offers a Christmas toast to a new South Africa. 

De Klerk and Mandela meet.  Mandela will be released in Sundall.  At the meeting James runs into his old boss.  He asks the man if the death of Mandela's son was really an accident.  The boss says that he doesn't really know. 

February 1990.  James is now Lt. Gregory.  And Mandela is free after 27 years of captivity.  James gives Mandela the good luck charm that his black friend Bafana gave him so many years ago. 

On television James watches the release of Mandela.  A huge crowd awaits him.  James says:  "Goodbye, Bafana."

Four years later, in 1994, Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected President of South Africa. Lt. James Gregory passed away in 2003 after a long bout with cancer. 


Good movie.  What's so interesting is that we watch the transformation of a very racist, naive prison guard into a racially sensitive and compassionate man as he learns that almost everything he was told about his society and the natives was pure propaganda.  With the blindfold of prejudice torn from his eyes, he sees the truth for once in his life.  He improved so much in his attitude that he became very close with Mandela and was able to aid in the process of negotiations between black and white South African leaders by serving as a middle man.  In one sense, it's a buddy movie, but much more, obviously.  Joseph Fiennes was great as prison guard James Gregory.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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