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

Made in Dagenham


Made in Dagenham

Sally Hawkins finds out that diamonds aren't always a girl's best friend.

(2010) True Life Story (Sony Classics) Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Rosamund Pike, Jamie Winstone, Andrea Riseborough, Geraldine James, Nicola Duffett, Matt Aubrey, Kenneth Cranham, Daniel Mays, Andrew Lincoln, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Rupert Graves, Richard Schiff. Directed by Nigel Cole

 

It is no secret that women in the workplace are not treated the same way as men are. Some of it is a biological necessity – after all, men don’t have to take off of work to have babies. However, when given equal work to do, women have never been paid equally to men.

In Britain that is as true as it is in the States. At the Ford plant in Dagenham, source of most of the Fords on the road in the UK, most of the women are involved with sewing the upholstery for the cars. They work in an industrial barn with no air conditioning that gets so hot that the women strip down to their bras and girdles in order not to faint while they are working at the sewing machines. This makes for some fairly awkward moments whenever any men walk into their domain.

One such man is Union rep Albert Passingham (Hoskins) who has to impart the bad news that their bid for being classified as “Skilled Labor” has been turned down by Ford’s executive leadership. This means they will continue to be classified as “Unskilled Labor” and thus make significantly less than their male counterparts.

This doesn’t sit well with the ladies or Albert and so they vote to authorize a one-day walkout to show management they mean business. Albert chooses young mother of two Rita O’Grady (Hawkins) – who is married to a line worker, Brian (Aubrey) to accompany himself, Union boss Monty Taylor (Cranham) and shop steward Connie (James) to a face-to-face meeting with management. However once they arrive it becomes clear that Monty not only doesn’t support equal pay for the workers, he is colluding with Ford to make sure it doesn’t happen. Incensed, Rita throws down some fabric and tells the execs that they are welcome to try to sew them into a car seat and leaves to tell her co-workers to walk.

Thus begins the story of a real-life 1968 labor action that would lead to Britain’s 1970 Equal Pay Act which was a landmark victory in the women’s rights struggle in Britain. Made in Dagenham is a dramatization of those actual events – Rita is actually an amalgam of several real women who were involved in the leadership of the strike – and a fine one at that.

The movie doesn’t just focus on the strike itself, although that’s definitely a focal point, but more on how it affected the workers and the community. Rita suffers from a good deal of vitriol because many townspeople are angry at the lost wages incurred during the strike (of course they change their tune once the strike is resolved). Her friends also have their own crosses to bear; Connie is dealing with a husband (Lloyd-Pack) who is suffering from battle fatigue and other psychological problems due to his involvement in the Second World War while Sandra (Winstone) dreams of being a model, which Ford uses against her to help try to turn the strikers back to work.

In the meantime the strike attracts the attention of Secretary of State Barbara Castle (Richardson) who sympathizes with the strikers but is under  enormous pressure from Prime Minister Harold Wilson and from Ford’s legal consul (Schiff) to bring the strike to a speedy conclusion or risk having Ford pull out of Britain entirely, something that would pretty much doom Wilson’s party in the next elections.

Hawkins does fine work as Rita. She’s shown her plucky and cheerful side in Happy-Go-Lucky and here adds a core of steel to that pluck. She begins on the mousy side but ends up a leader and the transformation is very organic. Hawkins gives the character flesh and blood.

Unfortunately not all of the other characters in the movie get the same kind of attention, particularly the male ones. They are mostly either sympathetic or antagonistic to Rita’s cause and rarely are they given much more context than that. The women fare a bit better, but often take a back seat to the flash fashions they are given to wear which are colorful and mod (in stark contrast to what the real strikers wore which was more drab and utilitarian – but then the women who worked at Dagenham at the time were a good sight older than they were portrayed here). The era is captured nicely on the soundtrack as well.

Dagenham works as a history lesson and gives us reason to understand that the fight still has a long way to go – women in the United States make about 77% of what men earn, for example – but films like this remind us that it just takes a willingness to stand up for what you believe in and the courage to stay standing when adversity is thrown at you to effect any sort of change.

WHY RENT THIS: A lively and plucky look at a group of women who helped change the British workplace permanently. Hawkins gives a marvelous performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the characters could have used some fleshing out.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of bad language as well as some fairly sexual scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sandie Shaw, who sings the film’s title song, once worked as a punched card operator at the Ford Dagenham plant, although years before the events of this film took place..

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a moneymaker unless I miss my guess.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Mars Needs Moms