LOOKING BACK

Mandela, The Man Who Walked The Walk

In many ways films are the cultural record of our times, so covering movies occasionally involves meeting the people that make history. Dr. Aida Takla O’Reilly (Egypt) is a longtime member who has served 3 times as HFPA president. In this year that saw the release of films devoted to both Nelson and Winnie Mandela, she remembers the Hollywood Foreign Press meeting with the South African president, eighteen years ago.

I had once the great honor of meeting President Nelson Mandela and have a conversation with him.

In 1995, the Hollywood Foreign Press presented Mandela with a glass plaque in appreciation for his relentless fight for freedom. Mandela had come to Washington DC for the premiere of Cry, the Beloved Country based on the Alan Paton novel.

HFPA member Ahmed Lateef facilitated the making of the glass statuette for his peace effort. It was inscribed to Nelson Mandela from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for his Peace Fight.

Several of us attended the premiere, which opened with Harvey Weinstein introducing the First Lady Hillary Clinton, who in turn introduced Nelson Mandela. Mandela was received with a standing ovation lasting at least five minutes.

After the screening, there was a reception. We asked if we could present Mandela with our token of appreciation and the producer agreed with two conditions. Only one person could be in the private room, and there were to be no camera flashes, since his eyes were sensitive. And the meeting could be no more than five minutes.

Since I was the President then, I had the honor to present the plaque to Mandela on behalf of the HFPA. He received me with a charming smile and pointed at the heavy piece of glass I was carrying and said ‘this is bigger than you.’ I gave him the plaque on behalf of the members and told him about the Association and that one of our members was from South Africa (Phil). He asked where I was from and I said Egypt. We had a pleasant exchange about our countries and joked about the British colonial dream of ‘the Cape to Cairo Railroad.”

He told me that the Egyptian Minister of External Affairs visited him in jail as representative of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) but he did not say why. I said ‘Yes, I know who and I know why visited you. He happened to be my uncle, and he came to offer you freedom on the condition that you say that all is well in the country. But you turned the offer down and your answer was ‘but all is not well in the country.’” He was surprised, offered me a tender smile, hugged me and left.

At the end of dinner, I intercepted his exit to introduce some HFPA members to him. He was gracious with everyone. Armand Gallo, managed in his inimitable way to take a picture of us surrounding him.

One last recollection. When Mandela was released and was making his first appearance, it was televised worldwide, and thousands of people took to the streets celebrating. A reporter went to a young white man and asked, “Why are you here?” The young man answered, “I want to see the man who was in jail all my life.”

In the humble opinion of this writer Mandela is the true HERO of the 20th Century.

Aida Takla O’Reilly