Review by Pete Mason
The recent death of Nelson Mandela does not make the film based on his autobiography any more or less powerful – it makes viewing that much more necessary. Viewing through the lens of history, the growth and struggles that Mandela faced in his adulthood in South Africa are portrayed in a strong and more vibrant manner with Idris Elba (“The Wire,” “Luther”) in the title role, a contrast to the grandfatherly Morgan Freeman from 2009’s “Invictus.” This film, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” shows the struggle, the uprising, the vigor, the fight and the rise to power of Mandela over the course of his lifetime, shedding light not just on the former state prisoner, but why he was there, and the events that transpired for him to leave prison and bring change to South Africa.
A guiding voice-over appears briefly in the beginning and end of the film, and with Mandela’s recent death, it almost feels like a voice from the grave is guiding the viewer through the experience. Mandela’s life is presented in full, with a look at his tribal upbringing, then moving directly to his role as a lawyer for the often accused black majority of South Africa, by the white minority. The oppression and hatred of blacks is seen early on, but it is not something Mandela stands idly by to watch continue. We see a tall and imposing Mandela as a fighter, but also with his faults – he is a father, but an absentee one; a husband, but not faithful to his wife; an activist, but one torn between non-violent protest and violence. This is not a gloss over of the world leader – this is the warts and all version of his life, and a telling that should be embraced, for not all leaders are perfect.
Director Justin Chadwick tells the story of Mandela with brutal honesty and does not white-wash the life of a man who held the hope of a nation in his struggle to gain freedom, for both himself and for all South Africans. This look at Mandela’s life focuses on the rise of a leader, from lawyer to militant, state prisoner to president, a full-life view of a world leader. 2009’s “Invictus” concentrated on the world Rugby Championships as a uniting event for all South Africans, and while that film takes a different angle, you could conceivably (and chronologically) watch “Invictus” after the end of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and get a nearly full picture of Mandela in South Africa in the second half of the 20th century.
Second wife Winnie (played with great emotional depth by Naomie Harris) is by Nelson’s side through his struggles, but once sentenced to life in prison, becomes more militant, especially after being arrested routinely as a form of terrorism by the local police, scarring her and bringing out anger in her once released. The Sharpeville massacre, a non-violent protest of arcane identification laws turned into a South African Amritsar, and is the defining moment that changes Nelson to a more militant approach, one he sees as no alternative to the white minority that continues to oppress his people. After many bombings, Nelson and his compatriots are sentenced to life in prison, made all the more emotional from Alex Heffes’ score. Robben Island becomes Mandela’s home for the next 18 years, where he uses his boxing training to keep his sanity, and begins quiet rebellion in piecemeal fashion, so as to push back against the prison guards and the poor physical and psychological treatment.
Only the graying of Mandela’s hair signifies the long span of time Nelson and Winnie are separated in their respective prisons. Elba looks the part throughout the film – young and sleek as a lawyer, scruffy as a man on the run, quietly growing in age in prison, and later taking on the full visage of Mandela with his grayed hair and oversized glasses. Elba’s dialect and elocution are perfect in conveying all the emotion needed to make his point to fellow inmates, new and old. The voice is uncanny and soothing to the ears.
As the film progresses, Mandela ages and looks more like the Mandela that Gen Xers like me have come to know since the 1980s. Gaining small victories along the way – books, a bed, better treatment from guards – Mandela and his defendants move to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, where they are allotted more freedom, but still under the watchful eye of the guards. It is here when Mandela gives a face to the cause of repealing apartheid, as President Botha contacts him, asking the exiled freedom fighter (who is something of a statesman now, as he looks and acts as a leader, not a prisoner) to help quell the unrest in the streets.
For the first hour or so, Elba plays the historical figure of legend, and for the rest of the film, especially the last 30-40 minutes, we see Elba looking and acting more like Mandela than Freeman, a surprising turn as Freeman had an Oscar nominated turn and is easily identifiable as Mandela. While his friends Walter Sisulu (Tony Kgoroge) and Ahmed ‘Kathy’ Kathrada (Riaad Moosa) give him counsel in their common, shared cell, they disapprove of Mandela talking to the government, seeing it as a trap. The groupthink that brought them to fight the establishment ends up being one that nearly holds them back. Alas, Mandela sees his opening and takes it, calmly, and with great patience, waiting out the storm that is arising among them in the streets, where black-on-black crime is leading to a new level of unrest that must be dealt with. Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is the perfect anthem for the fighters, who have lost their purpose while fighting for their cause.
Almost released from prison, Mandela meets with chain-smoking President De Klerk (Gys de Villiers), in hopes of ending his prison sentence on his terms – not the state’s. Even a small gesture of a white government minister tying Mandela’s shoelace for him holds great symbolism, where Mandela has now risen to a point of prominence, and still is not free. Shortly after, a schism with Winnie, just as power sharing becomes a close reality, reflects the divide among black South Africa, with Mandela surveying the toll – women and children, dead in the streets.
The culmination is a national address for peace and voting as a proper means of change. While his release from prison was a step, it took years before the violence was calmed, peace was the focus and elections took place. In being elected the first black president of South Africa, the story comes full circle, with an elder Mandela portrayed by Elba as the hero to a nation, and world, that he is.