Entertainment » Movies

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Dec 13, 2013
Idris Elba in a scene from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’
Idris Elba in a scene from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’  (Source:The Weinstein Company)

Justin Chadwick's adaptation of Nelson Mandela's autobiography is more nuanced possesses greater gravitas than the sugary "Invictus," the 2009 movie in which Morgan Freeman played the role of Mandela. Here, that honor goes to Idris Elba ("Pacific Rim," "Prometheus"), with Naomie Harris ("Skyfall," "28 Days Later," a couple of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies) as his wife Winnie Mandela.

"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" hops from landmark to landmark in Mandela's life, like a stone skipping on water. His early life is summarized in a Xhosa ceremony in which youths become men; after that, we meet Mandela as a clever lawyer, and a young man in a hurry. Where's he rushing off to? Into the arms of as many attractive young women he can seduce.

Otherwise, although we get a sense that he's pressing for reform in a nation that systematically demeans and brutalizes people with dark complexions, it's unclear just what his exact aims or methods might be. Things come into focus when he's recruited into the African National Congress (ANC), where he becomes a leader -- first in a pacifistic mode and then, when peaceable strategies bring nothing but more brutality from the white government, through force.

Though the history in this film recounts passes by in a blur -- it's more of a précis or a bullet point list than a biofilm -- Chadwick is careful to create very specific moods. We get a sense of a failed state in a tailspin (and there is no other way to characterize any government that deploys its military against its own people); we also get a sense of South Africa as a vast, beautiful land. Saturated with a roseate light by cinematographer Lol Crawley, South Africa's terrain is a gorgeous, serene backdrop for the human ugliness that mars its society.

The movie slows down a bit once Mandela is convicted and imprisoned, but not until decades have passed and President de Klerk seeks him out, in 1990, to help quell rising civil unrest. In the scenes in which he negotiates his release from prison with several government officials, Elba brings a solid gravitas to the role, calmly and immovably laying out his vision.

South Africa must become a democracy that allows blacks and whites to participate in their future and in national policies. Though the white officials with whom he negotiates are terrified of this idea (because, after all, what are 30 million empowered blacks going to do to the white minority after suffering so many years of escalating cruelty?), Mandela proposes an outrageous notion: That people would rather live peacefully than seek revenge.

The idea must have seemed ludicrous at the time, it was largely borne out by the success of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This historic transformation of a country on the verge of disintegration makes Mandela's embrace of sabotage and bombings more palatable; the film can show him blowing up state facilities and still give him credence when he declares himself to be a man whose nature is essentially peaceful.

Similarly, Mandela's devotion to Winnie allows us to overlook the philandering that helped scuttle his first marriage (though ideological differences lead to Mandela and Winnie eventually separating; she was much more militant than he). What the movie sidesteps, however, is any mention of his involvement with the Communist party -- it seems that in our era of intense suspicion of anything smacking of "socialism," it's easier to create a sympathetic portrait of someone who resorts to terrorism than someone who embraces Marxism.

All the same, this is a stirring portrait of a great leader. The hagiography we're presented leaves out process-related subtleties (just how did Mandela manage to secure long trousers for black inmates at Robben Island, where "boys," as the guards referred to them, were clothed with short pants?) but it does venture to show us a man, rather than a saint.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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