Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Welcome to sunny Robben Island.

Welcome to sunny Robben Island.

(2013) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto, Fana Mokoena, Simo Mogwaza, Thapelo Mokoena, Gys de Villiers, Robert Hobbs, Carl Beukes, A.J. van der Merwe, Andre Jacobs, Nomfusi Gotyana, Michelle Scott. Directed by Justin Chadwick

One of the most influential and beloved figures of the 20th century would have to be Nelson Mandela. The South African leader was imprisoned for 27 years and became the poster boy for South African oppression under the government of apartheid but also a symbol of hope for the South African people. His recent passing set off a wave of mourning and celebrations of his life not only throughout South Africa but around the world. However despite his notoriety many Americans aren’t all that familiar with the details of his story.

Mandela (Elba) started out as a lawyer who merely wanted to practice law in his native land. He was showing some success at it, unafraid to stand up to white accusers of black innocents. This didn’t endear him to the white establishment but it did catch the attention of the fledgling African National Congress, an organization that looked to lobby for the rights of the black majority in the white-dominated South African government. Mandela wasn’t especially interested in politics, to be honest.

However soon it became clear that the laws of South Africa were becoming more and more repressive as apartheid began to be codified as a way of life. Mandela felt he had no choice but to become involved politically and it turned out that he was a natural leader and orator. This definitely didn’t endear him to the white establishment but it did catch the attention of Winnie Madikizela (Harris) whom he would later marry.

However their time together was short. Not long after they got married, a peaceful protest at the Sharpsville police barracks turned into a massacre as panicked police officers opened fire on a crowd of protesters who wished to turn themselves in for arrest for not carrying the mandatory paperwork all black South Africans were required to carry at all times. Mandela and the other leaders of the ANC, including Walter Sisulu (Kgoroge) and Ahmed Kathrada (Moosa) realized that non-violent tactics weren’t working; they only brought on further repression and worse still, deadly violence.

The ANC went on a relentless bombing campaign, destroying edifices that symbolized the oppression of the white South African government. Their members went underground, chased by the police until at last they were eventually caught and sentenced to hard labor on Robben Island, the most notorious of South African prison complexes. The court could have sentenced them to death but knew that would lead to outright rioting and rebellion, so they were sentenced to life in prison.

From inside prison, the group and particularly Mandela became symbols even as Winnie continued to lead the fight from outside until she herself was arrested and subjected to brutality and torture. After being released, the embittered Winnie became much more radicalized and her vision of the future of South African began to drift away from that of her husband.

International and internal pressure eventually forced Mandela’s release and this forced the South African government in turn to relax apartheid and hold free elections which the ANC participated in as a political party and Mandela himself as a presidential candidate. He would defeat the incumbent President De Klerk (de Villiers) who ironically had negotiated to free Mandela and the rest of the ANC. Mandela was faced by anger and outrage directed at the white South Africans by the blacks – much of it led by his own wife, who came out against his call for reconciliation and forgiveness. Uniting the two races as one strong country might have been the toughest battle Mandela would face.

There’s no doubt that Mandela is a role model and a hero of mine. There is no doubting his courage or his convictions; I can’t imagine most politicians these days willing to be imprisoned for their beliefs can you? Nevertheless, I’m not sure if this film, based on the South African leader’s own autobiography does his legacy justice.

This is essentially a two-person movie; Elba and Harris. Harris has a difficult role to perform; Winnie here is portrayed as an initially supportive and idealistic woman who turns bitter and cynical as the movie progresses; it’s not the kind of change that makes audiences love you. Still, she does a fine job at showing Winnie’s inner strength and fire. However, her performance is sadly being largely overlooked.

That’s not the case for Elba who has been garnering some Oscar buzz for his although given the strong competition this year for Best Actor I’m thinking he has an outside chance at best for a nomination. Still, it’s a pretty incredible performance considering that Elba looks absolutely nothing like Mandela who was always fairly thin and scrawny whereas Elba is a burly, muscular man. They also don’t resemble each other facially. Elba however captures the great man’s mannerisms and speech patterns. When you close your eyes you could swear you were listening to Mandela himself.

Considering the events of his life and that for 27 years of it he spent in prison, there is a sense of compression with the movie as if we’re just settling lately on momentous events and giving them short shrift. In truth, Mandela merits a mini-series at the very least to cover all the things that happened both to him and South Africa in general. Still, you get a good sense of the events that surrounded him and shaped his point of view.

I would have hoped that a movie about Mandela would have been more inspiring than this one does. I get the sense that Chadwick was at a loss as to how to handle the Robben Island sequences. He does show some of the things the guards did but for the most part you don’t get a sense of how hard the imprisonment was on Mandela other than a single sequence in which Mandela gets a telegram that his son was killed in a car crash. He wasn’t given permission to leave the island to attend the funeral and you can feel his despair. Certainly Mandela must have had sleepless nights, self-doubt, despair. We don’t get a sense of that other than that one scene.

This is one of those might-have-been movies. It certainly could have been a triumph but unfortunately it doesn’t really achieve that feeling at any point. You do get a sense of admiration about the man and perhaps it’s unfortunate timing literally opening in limited release a week before the great man passed away and opening wide a few weeks after that has something to do with us not being able to get past that. After all, we’ve been witness to many heartfelt and detailed tributes to the man in recent weeks. This movie doesn’t really measure up to them.

REASONS TO GO: Idris Elba gives a powerful performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks fire. Loses focus during the Robben Island sequences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, some sexuality, some foul language and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: News of Mandela’s death took place just moments before the film’s London premiere. His daughters Zindzi and Zenani were given the option of having the premiere postponed but chose to go ahead as planned. The news was broken to those in attendance at the conclusion of the screening by producer Anant Singh.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winnie Mandela

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: American Hustle

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