“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” Liberates the Man from the Myth

Mandela - Long Walk to Freedom

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Justin Chadwick, 2013)

In spite of some of the usual pitfalls of biographical films (or, as they’re commonly known, “biopics“) – which include conflation of events and characters, as well as oversimplification of historical causes and effects – Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a perfectly pitched and well-crafted film about Nelson Mandela, the late South African freedom fighter and leader. Idris Elba (“The Wire,” “Luther“) delivers a standout performance as Mandela, as does Naomie Harris (28 Days LaterSkyfall) as Mandela’s second wife, Winnie. The cinematography, by Lol Crawley (Hyde Park on Hudson), lends the picture an elegiac hue when appropriate, as well as the edgy rough look it needs when the film turns bloody. The only truly off-key notes, for me, were the U2 song that played over the end credits, which was as ordinary as the great man was extra-ordinary, and the old-age make-up applied to Elba, which sometimes looks like, well, make-up.

But what makes the film especially worth seeing is that it presents Nelson Mandela as a flesh-and-blood human being, capable of both good and bad, and liberates him from the Yoda-like mask that the world had projected on to him after he emerged from prison over 20 years ago. Mandela was, first and foremost, a fighter, willing to die for the cause he believed in. He was not a god. He was a man. A great man, but still a man, and this film reveals him in all of his imperfect human glory.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom moves very quickly (sometimes almost too much so). We meet Mandela – or, as his close friends and family call him, Madiba – as a boy after an initial opening dream sequence, but before we’ve had a chance to become familiar with the actor who plays him we jump ahead to Johannesburg in 1942, where the 24-year-old Mandela – now incarnated, as he will be in the rest of the film, by Elba – is practicing law. It’s easy to see, as Elba portrays him, how people would be drawn to Mandela: he is intelligent, charismatic, handsome, and possessed of great personal authority. He’s also a bit of a Lothario, seducing women easily, and then cheating on them with other women. Life is as good as it’s going to get for an African in South Africa. The white minority may be in power, and racial discrimination may be omnipresent, but a smart lawyer like Mandela can take pride in his work and live with some semblance of dignity.

But then, in 1948, everything changes when the Afrikaner National Party wins the general election and establishes a system of codified racial segregation, which they call apartheid. Almost immediately, Blacks are moved into separate communities and targeted with severe reprisals when they protest. And protest they do, primarily under the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), the Black political party that will soon be banned by the white government. Mandela, recruited by the ANC, becomes increasingly radicalized with each act of apartheid injustice, and is soon leading the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), and participating in acts of terrorism against the government and white minority rule, making a name for himself along the way. After a short prison sentence, Mandela, now divorced from his first wife (who did not share his passion for resistance), meets Winnie, who will become his domestic and political partner for almost 40 years. Although at first she is content to play merely a passive supporting role in the fight against apartheid, events and circumstances will eventually lead her to battle, as well, albeit in a manner different from her husband’s.

After many more anti-government acts that send him into hiding, Mandela is eventually captured and tried, along with other ANC leaders, and sentenced to life in prison in 1963. In prison he will remain until 1990, when then-President of South Africa, F.W. De Klerk, responding to the increasing international isolation of his country, frees Mandela and paves the way for a transition to majority Black rule. Most viewers are probably familiar with what happened after that, and how Mandela was then elected as South Africa’s first Black President in 1994. That election is, in fact, where the film ends; it does not concern itself with the details of Mandela’s rule, other than to show how hard he worked to avoid bloodshed and retaliation against whites, in order to ensure a stable transition to democracy. Given what the film shows of the terrible treatment he and his family endured over the years, this capacity for forgiveness stands out as the remarkable act that it was. This forgiveness is also a major point of contention between Mandela and Winnie, leading to their eventual break-up.

I was a college student in the 1980s, and was made aware of the struggles against apartheid primarily though the campus divestment movements of the time, as well as through Paul Simon’s Graceland album. The first time I saw images of Mandela was when he was released from prison on February 11, 1990 (my 21st birthday), and he was already, in his early 70s, an old man, though still spry. His was a voice of calm and reason at a time when that kind of levelheadedness was most needed, and I just assumed that he had always been a wise and measured soul. It was therefore quite a revelation to learn what kind of a man he was when young – a freedom fighter willing to die for his cause – and to see how he progressed from defender of the status quo to violent radical to elder statesmen to father of modern South Africa. The film benefits from the timeliness of its release, just weeks after Mandela’s death, but it would be a must-see even without that (un)happy coincidence. We need to see that heroes are not necessarily born, but made by circumstance (and their reaction to that circumstance). This film makes that point brilliantly.

Nowhere is the contrast between what was and what might have been better exemplified than in the conflicting evolutions of Nelson and Winnie. They start out as soul mates, equally committed to the cause of Black liberation, but the 27 years that Nelson spends in jail lead him to very different conclusions than they do Winnie (who spends her own substantial amount of time in prison, as well). He chooses diplomacy over war; she chooses war. At the end of the film, we understand both points of view, but are very glad that Nelson’s triumphed. When they separate – personally and politically – it’s a sad moment for Winnie, but a good one for the nation to be. Elba and Harris are magnificent in their respective roles, helping us to see how the years of pain and suffering have transformed the Mandelas, and South Africa. You will empathize and sympathize with them both, and emerge from this film deeply moved, and grateful that a man such as Nelson Mandela existed.


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