Based on an autobiography of the same name, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom chronicles familial and historic events in the life of anti-Apartheid activist Nelson Mandela. Director Justin Chadwick’s approach to chronicling the life of Mandela is often subtle in taking the viewer on a long journey from Mandela’s childhood home (Qunu) to bourgeois lawyer to anti-Apartheid radical to prisoner to change agent to South Africa’s first black president. With sweeping cinematography capturing the beauty of South Africa’s cities and countryside, the film tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s unlikely journey from ordinary citizen to extraordinary leader of South Africa and eventually the world.
Chadwick brilliantly paints the struggle for freedom by black South Africans against the backdrop of the sweeping mountainous and beach terrains of South Africa. The film shows many sides of Mandela’s life and doesn’t shy away from the complicated life that he led on his journey to becoming the man that many will revere for decades to come. Chadwick manages to stay away from hero worship, instead showing viewers the complexities and sacrifices of a life dedicated to the pursuit of freedom.
In this film, Mandela, played by Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther) is a whole person – child and adult, law-abiding citizen and radical, good and bad husband, committed partner and philanderer, dilettante and committed leader. He is a man who had already come a long way – making it from the rural part of the Eastern Cape, which is one of the poorest parts of South Africa to city life in Johannesburg and home life in Soweto as a lawyer. Along the way, Mandela marries and has children, but his wandering eye and first wife’s unwillingness to deal with the scrutiny and abuse by officials once Mandela decides to take up the cause of freedom, lead him to his second wife, Winnie Mandela.
Many have raved about Elba’s portrayal of Mandela, which is subtle yet powerful. Elba’s performance is enhanced by that of actress Naomie Harris, whose performance as Mandela’s loving and tortured second wife (and comrade) Winnie is haunting. Chadwick carefully exposes viewers to the psychological impact of living during Apartheid and the great personal sacrifices that many endured so that others could be free.
Harris brilliantly brings to light the story of Winnie Mandela, a precarious figure in the national media who is often maligned for the decisions made during the Apartheid era. This film gives us more insight into the life of the woman who went against the nonviolent vision that Nelson Mandela had for gaining equality in South Africa. Harris, whose South African accent is perfect, makes the viewer painfully aware of what happens to dreams deferred by discrimination, abuse, harassment, hate and imprisonment.
Nelson Mandela, who was also a boxer, is able to make use of his physical, spiritual and emotional energy in a tiny jail cell on Robben Island, fighting his way to survival through his mind, body and soul. Winnie, who spent a year and a half in prison and was brutalized, could not get over the humiliation and cruelty of her treatment at the hands of white oppressors, let alone the ways in which her family was ripped apart. While Nelson Mandela was able to break free of the psychological prison in which he was living, Winnie never did, which is why they had to part ways upon his release. The filmmaker skillfully parallels the couple’s character development over the course of Mandela’s imprisonment, showing how their once powerful and intimate relationship was fractured by Apartheid, time and loss.
The film does a decent job of weaving in historical moments (Sharpeville Massacre and Rivonia Trial) but leaves out some important information that would add more cultural context to the story. For example, the film never mentions the Bantu system of education (educational system designed to train blacks as servants for white South Africans) or Mandela’s matriculation at the University of Fort Hare, which trained and produced many black leaders in Africa (Govan Mbeki, Oliver Tambo, Seretse Khama, Julius Nyerere, Robert Zobukwe, Robert Mugabe, Chris Hani and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) or his complex relationships with his co-defendants Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni.
In the film, it appears as if Mandela was inspired by the energy of the movement led by Sisulu to join the ANC as opposed to the sum total of his life events that were influential. Filmmakers must pick and choose what to place in a film and this is clearly Chadwick and writer William Nicholson’s version. By leaving out some major historic moments, Chadwick paints a picture of Mandela that can be a little thin at times and with a 2:21 running time, that’s a major flaw.
Nonetheless, the film is worth seeing for the powerful performances, picturesque cinematography and incredible soundtrack. The use of sound and music in this film is as powerful as the camera lens, reflecting the important role of sound and music in African culture. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is surely a short walk to Oscar based on these narrative and stylistic elements alone. Viewers might want to brush up on their knowledge of South African history and culture to better understand the intricacies of the life of a global icon like Nelson Mandela. This is a solid film that has a lot to offer for those still pining for a glimpse of Nelson Mandela.
This post was written by Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., founder & editor-in-chief of the award-winning news site The Burton Wire. She is also chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College. Dr. Burton is a media scholar whose areas of expertise include race, class, gender and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @Ntellectual.