I’d missed Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom when it was in the theaters in 2013. It was a movie I’d wanted to see, since I’d lived in South Africa for two years during the time Apartheid was being dismantled. Thanks to Showtime, I finally got the chance to watch this excellent film.
The movie covers a majority of Mandela’s life, beginning with his Khosa manhood ritual up to his election as president of the multicultural South Africa. Early on Mandela was a lawyer who was more interested in his own success. When the African National Conference, which had been founded decades earlier, sought him out to be a leader of the movement he at first wanted nothing to do with the cause. Over time, however, he awakened to the plight of his people and others under the oppressive rule of the Afrikaaners (white South Africans of Dutch heritage, once called the Boers).
In 1948 the government codified apartheid as the law of the land, including restrictions on where blacks could live. They were confined to certain townships, which is where you have Soweto coming into being – the name was an acronym for South West Township, based on its location relative to Johannesburg. Mandela at first embraced peaceful protests, but when the government reacted harshly and with violence to the protests, Mandela embraced violence himself. After several acts of sabotage, Mandela was arrested along with the other leaders of the ANC. They faced the death penalty, but rather than make martyrs of the men the judge sentenced them to life imprisonment. They were taken to Robben Island, a low piece of rock out in the ocean near Capetown.
What’s refreshing about the movie, based on Mandela’s autobiography, is that it doesn’t sugarcoat him but instead presents a warts and all portrait of the man. Along with his passion for justice and equality, Mandela had a passion for the ladies, which led to the dissolution of his first marriage. The movie also doesn’t shy away from the black-on-black violence that almost derailed the peace process in the early 1990s. Screenwriter William Nicholson had dealt with biography before, when he wrote the play “Shadowlands” and later adapted it for the film version. He also did the screenplay for the Broadway musical Sarafina, which took place in South Africa. (Nicholson recently worked on the screenplay for Unbroken as well.)
Idris Elba delivers a towering performance as Mandela. He perfectly captures Mandela’s tones and inflection, though in a natural way. While he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, he was overlooked by the Oscars, which is unfortunate since it is an Oscar-caliber performance. He wouldn’t have won, since that was the year of Daniel Day Lewis’ embodiment of Lincoln, but he should have been nominated. There has been talk of Elba taking over that most iconic of roles, James Bond, if and when Daniel Craig hangs up his tux and Walther. While he might be a bit old by that time – he’s only 4 years younger than Craig – he would do an outstanding job, just as he does with any role he takes on.
There is another 007 connection with Long Walk to Freedom in that the role of Winnie Mandela is played by Naomie Harris, who played Moneypenny in Skyfall and will be back in the role next year in Spectre. Harris delivers a nuanced and fierce performance as Winnie, who was a polarizing figure and was eventually kicked out of the ANC because of scandals. Thanks to Nicholson’s intelligent script and Harris’ portrayal, the movie succeeds in making Winnie understandable. It is a tragedy that in their decades-long separation while her husband was in prison, Winnie came to embrace violence and revenge, even as Mandela outgrew them.
The movie shows how members of the white government finally came to understand that change was not only inevitable but imperative. The last leader of apartheid South Africa, F.W. DeKlerk, saw it as a holy calling, to heal the land. Had it not been for them, working in concert with Mandela, the history of South Africa might have resembled many of the other nations in Africa who fell into sectarian violence after the occupiers left. Instead of division, there was reconciliation; instead of revenge, there was forgiveness, and it was facilitated by a man who had been viewed as a terrorist. While it’s not mentioned in the film, one telling action when Mandela was inaugurated was that he invited his jailer from Robben Island to attend the event.
Director Justin Chadwick and Cinematographer Lol Crawley filmed the movie on location, and they capture the look of South Africa perfectly: the beauty of the veld, the depressing rough houses of the townships, the impressive cities, and more. During the credits you see photographs of Mandela’s life that were clearly used to guide the filming of scenes.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a deep and rich story that gives the audience an clear view of the complex background and tensions that were woven into the thread of South Africa, leading up to the end of apartheid. I heartily recommend it.