By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Mandla’s father traveled to the United States frequently, and he brought back mind-expanding souvenirs: recordings of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, films about the Black Panthers. The family home doubled as a safe house for the anti-apartheid underground. Yet Mandla’s childhood was also steeped in African tradition. His grandfather taught him the Zulu credo, Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: “A human being is human through others.” Mandla’s uncle was a shaman, and when the toddler had trouble learning to speak, his parents brought in folk healers to free his tongue.
Their rituals may have worked too well: As Mandla grew older, his father told me over the phone from Pretoria, “He used to question everything. When you try and tell him, he says, ‘No, this is my opinion. I think this way.’ ” The elder Dube joined the Zion Christian Church when Mandla was about 10, and the family followed him. But at 13, Mandla was sent off to a nearby Anglican boarding school, St. Alban’s, one of the rare white schools that admitted a few black students. He found the experience deeply unsettling. The teachers were condescending, his classmates cold, and the venerable British tradition of upperclassmen sexually exploiting younger boys repelled him. His grades suffered, and when he was 15, his parents dispatched him to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where his older brother Sipho was attending college. After Mandla finished high school, he enrolled at Clark Atlanta University, where he majored in film and communications. “He was dedicated, clear about what he wanted to do,” said a former schoolmate, Glenn Gray.
At Clark, Mandla also met Lindiwe Mzimela, a South African émigré who had lived in the United States since she was 4. Together, they searched for spiritual grounding, in such disparate realms as yoga, Egyptian metaphysics and Native American religion. The pair married after graduating in 1993, and three years later resettled in South Africa, where a peaceful revolution had just overturned the white-minority power structure. It was a heady time. Lindiwe’s father, an Anglican priest, had joined Nelson Mandela’s government as minister of prisons. (He later fell out of favor and moved back to Atlanta.) Lindiwe became media coordinator for a political party. Mandla set up a production company, and was quickly hired by Sony Music to shoot Masekela’s video. He made TV commercials and a government PSA on domestic abuse. He helped draft a constitution for the new national filmmakers’ organization. In 1997, he even attended the Cannes Film Festival.
But his resumé did not translate into prosperity. South Africa’s film industry was still run by a white old-boy network, and it was hard for an outsider to make a living. Money grew even tighter when Lindiwe quit her job to care for the kids. To supplement their income, the couple collected cans for recycling. Their modest house was broken into twice. A cousin was killed in a gang shooting. The trip to Cannes was such a surreal contrast that Mandla freaked out and slapped a Frenchwoman when she touched his back ?at a party.
Back in Mabopane, there was a third break-in, and Mandla fought off the burglars with his fists. He decided to apply to AFI. In practical terms, he hoped to boost his career prospects. But he also dreamed of directing documentaries on the ills of his tortured nation. “How can one be acquiring these skills,” he asked himself, “and expect not to give back to a country that has gone through so much?”
Mandla’s intention to return to South Africa (and his general anti-authoritarianism) helps explain why he didn’t bother trying to renew his visa after graduating from AFI in 2002; from that moment, he was an illegal alien. Yet he was not quite ready to fly home. He wanted to come back with some accomplishments under his belt, not as a homeless man with a fancy degree. He also felt a duty toward Lindiwe, who had shouldered all domestic responsibilities while he focused on school. She hoped to revive the acting career that she had begun in South Africa, and L.A. seemed the best place to start.
Instead, the Dubes soon found themselves even worse off than they had been in Mabopane. Hoping for a big break, Mandla took unpaid internships on high-budget films. “People would say, ‘Where do you stay?’ ” he told me. “I’d answer, ‘In Malibu.’ ‘But where in Malibu?’ ‘In a tent!’ ” On The Italian Job, he chatted in Afrikaans with fellow expat Charlize Theron, and discussed a possible PSA on autism with Mark Wahlberg. But when he asked the producer for a small stipend, he said, ?he was turned down.
Lindiwe wasn’t doing too well either. Profoundly depressed, she was medicating herself with Xanax and Nyquil. In the winter of 2002, after coming down with an infection, she decided to cleanse herself by fasting. Her health improved so dramatically that Mandla soon took up the practice. Fasting produced euphoria, but it had deeper rewards as well. It seemed to turn their poverty into something holy; they were emulating not only their Zulu ancestors, who fasted as part of their ritual cycle, but also the prophet Isaiah, who did it “to loose the bands of wickedness . . . and to let the oppressed go free.” Mandla and Lindiwe found further spiritual succor at the Agape International Spiritual Center, a New Age megachurch in Culver City. They attended sweat-lodge rituals on an Indian reservation in El Centro. But by the end of 2003, the couple were on the verge of divorcing.