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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

December 25, 2013
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

It seems almost surprising that it’s taken this long to produce a big-budget biopic of Nelson Mandela. There have been a few made-for-TV movies with Sidney Poitier and Dennis Haysbert in his role, and Morgan Freeman took up the part in Invictus, though it didn’t really focus on him. But now we have Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, certainly the most comprehensive look at the life of the most famous face of the African National Congress that finally took down South Africa’s system of apartheid.

The film spends about half its two-and-a-half-hour running time on Mandela’s nearly thirty-year incarceration, during which time, well, surprisingly little happens. For the first twenty years — from 1962 to 1982 — he was kept nearly isolated from the outside world on Robben Island. He was permitted two letters a year, each one cut to lace by censors before it reached his hands. William Nicholson’s screenplay focuses mainly on the psychological toll this long-term imprisonment took on Mandela, pausing only occasionally to remind us what was going on outside.

Partly in order to set up the suffering in prison, the first forty-five minutes cover Mandela’s life before prison. After all, if you don’t know about his first wife and her children, it might not hit as hard when his son Thembi dies and Mandela isn’t allowed to attend the funeral. To be honest, I don’t think we build up enough of a relationship with Thembi for it to make a difference; a lot of this section can come off as filler.

But the first act is also where we see Mandela’s activism. He first works within the system as a lawyer to defend the rights of the black population. When that approach inevitably fails, he joins up with the ANC, and eventually concludes that there is “no alternative to armed and violent resistance” that will achieve their political aims.

This is where we find some of the most impressive scenes, from Mandela’s powerful oratory to acts of industrial sabotage. In response, the government cracks down with increasing brutality, including the Sharpeville massacre, possibly the single best sequence in the entire film: the Edmund Pettus Bridge crossed with Kent State.

But the most important element introduced here is Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris). The film may be adapted from Nelson’s autobiography, but the story that really lands is Winnie’s. After Mandela is arrested she becomes a public figurehead for the movement. She serves her own time in prison under brutal conditions. On her return, she is hardened — forged in the crucible of the government’s abuses and ready to strike back.

Winnie’s arc from social worker to revolutionary firebrand provides a strong counterpoint to Nelson’s own evolution. In many ways it’s the more interesting one, even in the movie nominally focused on her husband. And despite its secondary status it still manages to cut more incisively than the soft-focus bio, Winnie Mandela.

As Winnie Mandela embraces more violent tactics — and indeed because of them — the government becomes more desperate to calm the black majority. They move Nelson and his cohort to Pollsmoor Prison to separate him from the younger activists on Robben Island, and begin direct talks with him in an effort to broker some kind of peace.

Nelson Mandela is, without question, a powerful and instrumental figure in the global effort for civil rights, and it’s important to tell his story. But most civil rights activism just isn’t very cinematic; it’s a long, slow process of grinding out little victories until the established powers simply lose the will to fight back. And Mandela, locked away for decades, is among the longest and slowest grinders. He is a powerful orator, but not a flamboyant character — Martin Luther King, Jr., not Malcolm X — and Elba plays up his calm but unshakable will. But at long last this seems like a history lesson better related directly, in the man’s own words, rather than interpreted onto the screen.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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