Skip to main content

Fathers and Son: 'Disciples' Is Harris' Latest Exploration of Cultural and Personal Identity

By Adrena Ifill

Filmmaker Thomas Allan Harris. Courtesy of Chimpanzee Productions

With his latest film, Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela: A Son's Tribute to Unsung Heroes, Thomas Allen Harris completes his Paulding Avenue Trilogy of personal works about cultural identity and legacy that began with Vintage: Families of Value (1995) and continued with Minha Cara/That's My Face (2001).

This final installment recalls the struggles of the "warriors" of the anti-Apartheid movement, which included his late stepfather, Benjamin Pule Leinaeng, affectionately known as "Lee." As a young man from Bloemfontein, South Africa, Lee went into exile in 1960 with 11 of his comrades, leaving their families behind. Their exodus, spurred by the oppression of Apartheid and encouraged by leaders such as Nelson Mandela, took them from South Africa to other African nations and eventually the United States to spread the word of the anti-Apartheid movement and shore up support for the African National Congress (ANC), the organization led by Mandela and Oliver Tambo.

Having arrived in the US in 1967 to study journalism at Temple University, Lee later set up an ANC office in New York City, then worked at the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Unit translating and narrating radio programs about the movement. Around that time, Lee met Harris' mother, Rudean Leinaeng, who was involved in the Black Power and anti-Apartheid movements.

Leingaeng produced Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, along with Woo Jung Cho and Don Perry; St. Clair Bourne served as executive producer.

Shot mostly in Super-16mm by Jonathan Kovel and David Forbes, the film makes ample use of re-creations of the "disciples'" journey. Harris engaged young South African students through a year-long outreach program that included an essay contest, the winners of which received acting and production roles in the film. The students, based in Bloemfontein, starred in the re-creations of the exodus; many of them lived near the former exiles and were unaware of their contributions to history.

Harris sees the making of Twelve Disciples as a way of giving back to the homeland of his stepfather, who became a major influence in Harris' filmmaking career and sensibility. Harris makes ample use of Lee's archives, both personal (in the 8mm home movies that he shot of Harris and his family) and professional (in Lee's writings, radio broadcasts, films and videos, as well as a 1989 audio interview with Lee that helped to structure the film). Sam Pollard and Sabine Hoffman were the editors on Twelve Disciples. "In South Africa, there is no such thing as 'step-,'" Harris maintains. "He is just my father." Throughout the film, the viewer is witness to the evolution of this relationship.

As with the other films in the Paulding Avenue Trilogy, Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela weaves across cross-cultural, inter-generational struggles in the conflict between father and son. In Vintage: Families of Value, Harris and his brother Lyle explore their negative memories of their birth father. In Minha Cara/ That's My Face, we meet Harris' maternal grandfather, an avid amateur filmmaker, whose religious outlook shapes Harris' view of the world. All of these men--father, stepfather and grandfather--contribute significantly to the trilogy and help the viewer understand why the filmmaker wants to tell the story of "Who am I?"

Throughout the trilogy, the duality of identity is the major thread. In Vintage, Harris examines being black and gay; in Minha Cara/ That's My Face, he contrasts religiosity and spirituality; and in Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, he explores African and African-American father and son relationships.

The historical backdrop upon which Harris illuminates his stories is riveting. In the first two films, he uses original footage and stills shot by his family during pivotal times in historythe Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination, the Black Pride movement of the '70s and the anti-Apartheid movement in Africa, Europe and the US. Having such a rich film collection in his grandfather's basement, Harris inherited a personal treasure trove from which to create. As a third generation filmmaker, he uses his resources wisely. In The Twelve Disciplines of Nelson Mandela, the filmmaker's extended family plays a role, as well as his mother and stepfather's former comrades and their families. All the while, though, he is an eyewitness to history, and his trilogy dovetails his inquiries into personal and cultural identity with the sociopolitical spirit and vibrancy of a period in history that the media barely covered.

Harris views his role as a filmmaker as part griot and part legacy. "I am fulfilling my filial duty," he says, emphasizing the importance of telling stories of family and history, especially for today's black youth who might not have a father figure with whom to explore this relationship.

Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela premiered at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, then won Best Documentary honors at the Pan African Film Festival. "It was a shared and lived experience for many," Harris says of the award. "They really connected with the subject matter." He also earned an Independent Spirit Truer Than Fiction Award nomination.

Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, a co-production of ITVS in association with P.O.V./American Documentary and the National Black Programming Consortium, airs on PBS' P.O.V. September 19.


Adrena Ifill recently completed a historical documentary on Robert Smalls, a former slave and five-term US Congressman from South Carolina who served during the late 1800s. She can be reached at