Film Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

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Leading His People by Shifting Their Morality, And His

The biopic is a slippery beast. It’s daunting because of its size and grandeur, and because its aims appear inherently stratospheric. How do you properly retell a whole life? The mistake that’s often made regards this question. A director and writer try to retell a whole life and in doing so, deify their subject. Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom mostly succumbs to this problem, but occasionally subverts it. Because Nelson Mandela recently passed away, this movie feels both timely and operational. It’s neither must-see canon to cathartically memorialize, nor is it a lifeless historical picture. It achieves a little bit of everything, and not a lot of something.

Idris Elba is tasked with embodying Mandela, broadening his shoulders and lengthening his pant numbers. His enhanced biceps would make it appear as though director Justin Chadwick had dedicated a film solely to Mandela’s boxing background. But before Elba emerges as a young, dignified lawyer, we witness a younger version, running through golden wheat fields as a teen, the camera low to the ground and close behind. We impressionistically weave throughout the rolling South African hills and watch him don white paint to his face before dunking underneath a pond, shedding boyhood for manhood.

That’s all we see of his years at home, infected with the nostalgic yellow glow, woven intermittently throughout. These scenes will contrast with the darkened Robben Island jail cell he calls home for eighteen years, a fundamental place captured briskly, but effectively. Chadwick, who has mostly worked in television, doesn’t posses the visual prowess or aesthetically rich depiction of prison life that Steve McQueen achieved in Hunger. Nor does he imply the damaging and fully claustrophobic effect Frank Darabront portrayed in The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Long Walk To Freedom must span the long wave of Apartheid and its liberating ending, so certain sacrifices are made at two hours and nineteen minutes. Mandela’s prison experience is its own movie.

We see the transformation of Mandela as public servant to more radical activist spawn from a 1942 trial, cross-examining a white woman in court. She refuses to answer his questions because she’s so appalled that a man with black skin would address her in public. The beginning of the African National Congress shortly forms afterward, discussions at dinner tables with friends that evolve into bus boycotts and public forums in the street. The only humanizing moments that Mandela receives are in his sexual infidelities. With each new speech, a new woman to lock eyes with, a new woman to make him forget about his wife and young son at home. Eventually one set of eyes sticks, an ambitious, yet innocent woman named Winnie (Naomie Harris) whom Mandela will marry soon after they meet.

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The Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 prompts Mandela and his group of trusted associates to take a more violent, proactive approach: terrorist activity that eventually gets them sentenced to prison in life. It also helped sentence Mandela to America’s terrorist watch list until 2008. But Chadwick stays with Mandela, and in doing so, shows his peaceful transformation into a man leading by example in solitary. We aren’t infected by the world outside Robben Island except for several scenes of archival footage depicting Apartheid’s sins. Instead we slowly witness the gray hairs accumulate onto Elba’s firmly placed wig. Between chopping cement rocks in the prison yard, Mandela’s biggest, symbolic achievement is having guards replace their shorts with long trousers.

In fact, Apartheid is never really depicted so much as it is insinuated. Mandela witnesses it through the prison glass in his wife, whose hairstyle changes the more powerfully radical she becomes. He witnesses it when a new crop of young prisoners challenges his identity. He witnesses it while speaking with his grown up teenage daughter as his prison guard interrupts their conversation shouting, “Family matters only, no politics.” Enough time has elapsed to the point where separating the two has become impossible.

After his release from prison, Mandela also realizes the difficulty in separating his wife from the cause. Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” plays over montages showing Winnie in fatigues commanding large crowds in South African, and it’s hard not to hear Chadwick invoking Spike Lee. Do The Right Thing offered the existential thought comparison of King and Malcolm X, and here it lingers subtly between Nelson and Winnie, products of intolerant, divergent circumstances.

But Chadwick doesn’t make Nelson a strict pacifist, nor extremely flippant of his wife. There is real sacrifice here and moving toward a unification process with white government is not as simple as it appears for Winnie to don black boots and camouflage caps. The burden of the ANC and subsequent Presidential victory can’t replace the entire sting Mandela feels losing his son while in prison, nor politically divorcing Winnie. The emotion dispensed in these scenes might feel like camp if the camera weren’t so closely tethered to its protagonist.

Long Walk To Freedom is a nice supplement to the many documentaries about Mandela’s life and his autobiography, from which the movie’s writer William Nicholson adapted the screenplay. It’s Elba that makes Long Walk To Freedom special. He’s a constant force, both physically and spiritually, a mostly reverential being when living in Mandela’s aging body. For the latter half of the movie, he finds space in each scene to spread his unflinching eyes over his country, from prison, from balconies, into the television camera. His motto from his youth to his Presidency remains the same. “You are weak, people are strong.” It’s why the movie nearly ends when Mandela walks out to address the infinite crowd beneath his newly elected status. He’s looking out over his land, his people, and for the first time, a smile slowly cracks his weathered face.

3.5/5

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