BET is making a big statement with "Madiba," a six-hour miniseries on the life of Nelson Mandela starring Laurence Fishburne, premiering at 8 p.m. Wednesday and continuing on Feb. 8 and 15.
The cable channel is showing it can do top-shelf scripted programming with top talent in front of and behind the camera. "Madiba" is the kind of miniseries that can compete with almost anything on cable, network TV and streaming services this season.
Once the storyline gets to Mandela as an adult and Fishburne appears on screen, it gets a lot more compelling. It's easy to forget what a powerful presence Fishburne generates — until you see him here. The camera finds him, and he never lets it go, commanding every scene he's in.
Fishburne has a great role to play as the South African freedom fighter who helped end apartheid and went from brutal imprisonment on Robben Island to be president of his country from 1994 to 1999. Mandela's life makes for a huge canvas, and Fishburne fills every inch of it that's included in the script.
My biggest complaint is that the script is so linear and conventional in terms of the storytelling — especially at a time when TV writing has become increasingly imaginative and daring. Think of the time-shifting of NBC's "This Is Us" or the multiple points of view in Showtime's "The Affair."