Watching the press screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (based on the 1995 autobiography by the South African leader) the morning after his December 5 death was a bittersweet experience, but nothing compared to what his daughters Zindzi and Zenani had to go through—they were at the movie’s London premiere and were informed of their dad’s passing minutes before the movie began. Offered the chance to postpone the screening, the Mandelas instead allowed the debut to proceed as planned.
Adapted to the screen by Oscar-nominated William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Les Misérables, Gladiator), the film follows Mandela through his childhood, early (and often violent) scuffles with the white regime, his trial and 27 years in prison, his victorious release and election as the nation’s first black president in 1994. In reality, he was South Africa’s first fully democratically elected president, period. The movie effectively examines the many battles Mandela had to face throughout his life not only against the white rulers, but against members of his own African National Congress and, even more difficult, his wife Winnie Mandela, who had remained loyal to the by-any-means-necessary approach of many in direct opposition with her husband’s more conciliatory tack.
The film doesn’t dodge Mandela’s appetite for women and his early entanglements with sabotage activities; even though he never directly killed anyone, one of the movie’s most poignant and disturbing scenes shows Mandela (a solid Idris Elba, of The Wire fame) hearing the news of the death of a comrade because “the bomb exploded too soon.” In just a few seconds, you can tell there’s a transformation going inside Mandela by looking at Elba’s eyes. In the last part of the film, Elba, in fully convincing Saint Mandela mode, negotiates with the white regime as a pure pragmatist, even though the ANC begged him to obtain full equality instead of the “shared power” deal the government was offering.
But Mandela knew better—as a true leader, he could sacrifice his family and his freedom but not his principles, and was willing to pay the ultimate price for it. He knew something was better than nothing and that the power of love would soon deliver more. After 27 years in jail, he came out even stronger than before, but in his heart there was no room for revenge. That inability to cause harm, his capacity to listen and make himself heard, coupled with his great political intelligence, allowed him to sit down with the very same people who had imprisoned him and successfully negotiate the liberation of South Africa. But that was only the beginning of the battle with Winnie.
It’s hard to digest the fact that Elba got a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination for his role as Mandela, while Naomie Harris (Skyfall, 28 Days Later) didn’t. As Winnie, she steals the movie with her fierce portrayal of a woman whose dedication to the cause of freedom turned into uncontrollable rage (and many later scandals not dealt with in the movie). Once she began to see Mandela as “soft” after his liberation, their separation was a matter of time.
Mandela is no Gandhi, but the film is an honest portrayal of an honest man who didn’t mind reinventing himself and following his own conscience instead of those who were demanding blood for blood. Best of all, the father of South Africa and, arguably, the most beloved political figure in history, never set to become a hero and never felt like one.
“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people,” Mandela wrote in Long Walk to Freedom. “There was no particular day on which I said, ‘Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people’; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”
In that sense, the movie (gorgeously shot by Hyde Park on Hudson’s Lol Crawley) is a triumph because it shows how a man can stand up to injustice, suffer for it and come out of it all full of scars but with his dignity intact.
Dir. Justin Chadwick; writ. William Nicholson, Nelson Mandela; feat. Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto (PG-13)
Opens December 25 at some Santikos
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