A sincere but sapless attempt to meld personal and political documentary, Thomas Allen Harris’s Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela takes on an intensely dramatic topic—the struggle against apartheid—yet paradoxically transforms its powerful source material into a stiff and sometimes awkward tutorial. Harris focuses on his late stepfather B. Pule “Lee” Leinaeng, one of the members of the activist African National Congress sent into exile from South Africa in the 1960s. Lee eventually arrived in the U.S., where he met Harris’s mother, an American who was herself involved with the Afrocentric black-power movement. Harris relates the ANC’s story through talking-head interviews with surviving members and an unfortunate series of low-budget dramatic re-enactments; these latter bits undermine the doc’s gravity through their resemblance to educational videos or segments from Robert Stack’s Unsolved Mysteries. Toward the end of the film, when the story of Lee’s life begins to intersect with that of Harris’s own childhood, the inclusion of home-shot Super 8 and video creates a richer sense of the past, but the director still appears to hold back. Harris’s rocky relationship with his stepfather is given a brief account, and while the director details his own “artistic” life in Europe as a young man, the topic of sexual identity (covered extensively in Harris’s earlier experimental videos and documentaries) is only lightly breached. Undoubtedly there is a richer story here that Harris has failed to tell.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 27, 2006