Arts Review, Movies

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom featured image

Justin Chadwick, director

William Nicholson, script based on the memoir by Nelson Mandela

Starring: Idris Elba (Mandela) Naomie Harris (Winnie Mandela), Tony Kgoroge (Walter Sisulu), Terry Pheto (Evelyn)

The buzz

This screen adaptation of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography couldn’t have come out at a better time. Advance word praised Idris Elba’s performance as Mandela.

The genres

Bio-pic; epic tale of liberation

The premise

The life of Mandela is recounted. It’s the stuff of legends: a Xhosa born into a royal family, Mandela leaves his gorgeous country home to go to university and become a lawyer. In Johannesburg, he becomes active in the African National Congress (ANC) and rises to a leadership role in the Defiance campaign against the apartheid (racially separatist) regime. In the late 1950s, he joins the Communist party and moves from non-violent protest to becoming a founder in the radical Umkhonto we Sizwe campaign to sabotage the South African government.

Arrested in 1962, he is charged with conspiracy to overthrow the state and is sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Mandela spends 27 years in prison separated from his second wife and great love Winnie and their children. (And, of course, from the children he had with his first wife Evelyn).

During those years in prison, breaking rocks in the hot sun for many of them, Mandela achieves a spiritual peace. He realizes that South Africa can never be free unless the ANC accepts reconciliation with the oppressive white forces that had used apartheid methods to maintain control of the country. Finally released from prison in 1990, he negotiates with President F.W. de Klerk to end apartheid and arranges for the first truly democratic election in South Africa’s history.

Nelson Mandela wins the election and keeps the lid off ethnic and racial violence. While the world admires him, he finds that he’s lost the love of Winnie, who is committed to a more hard-edged approach to justice in a free South Africa. They divorce but he does become the Tata (father) of his nation.

The performances

Idris Elba is brilliant as Mandela: completely charismatic and compelling. Also excellent is Naomie Harris as Winnie.

The creative team: Chadwick and Nicholson

Mandela’s life is long and complicated. How do you depict a legend?

The team went for an epic approach, which is fine, but it makes it hard to understand Mandela and the amazing changes he went through in his life.

The best sequences are those when Nelson meets and falls in love with Winnie and embraces violent change. The film comes alive at that point—but, of course, it’s actually counter-productive to this bio-pic’s message, which embraces peace and understanding.

The skinny

Mandela’s amazing life overwhelms the filmmakers of this well- intentioned epic. Idris Elba’s performance makes the film worth seeing but Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is, sadly, a disappointment.

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