Synopsis: MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM is based on South African President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, which chronicles his early life, coming of age, education and 27 years in prison before becoming President and working to rebuild the country’s once segregated society. Idris Elba (PROMETHEUS) stars as Nelson Mandela with Justin Chadwick (THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL) directing.
eyelights: the cast.
eyesores: the spare script.
There’s no way that I can pay tribute to Nelson Mandela in a way that would be even remotely appropriately eloquent. I mean, I recognize his significance and understand why so many people were enamoured with him, but I never really followed his career and achievements. I knew of him and that was enough for me.
My gf, who idolized the political icon, really wanted to see this movie. I wasn’t interested, but I wasn’t disinterested either, so I agreed to see the picture while it ran in our local art house cinema. We had been waiting a while and the window was a relatively small one; if we didn’t go now, we’d have to wait at least six months for the DVD release.
Needless to say, I can bring very little insight into the historical accuracy of the picture; I can only comment on the film itself.
I went in there knowing very little and learning just a little bit more by the time I walked out; at best, I got a glimpse.. Frankly, I don’t feel as though the picture gave me any true insight on Mandela. Whether it was the filmmakers’ inability to condense his life into 150 minutes or if it simply focused on the wrong aspects of his life, it simply didn’t gel into a strong portrait.
The first third of the film was a bit ADD-addled, in my mind, jumping from one moment to the next without pause and nary an explanation. Admittedly, the filmmakers had much to cover in their two-hour-plus movie, and likely couldn’t afford any pauses, but there was little time to appreciate context and let any of the details sink in.
We don’t even get a sense of who Mandela was before adulthood, of what led him to become a lawyer and to want to fight social injustice. Aside from a brief glance at him as a child, we primarily get to know him while he’s already a working lawyer (I couldn’t help but think that, just like Jesus, his story begins only once in his thirties).
It was both amusing and glaring to see the kind of racism that Mandela faced in court, trying to defend his clients, being black. He understood how things worked and tried his best to weave his way through (or around) the hurdles set in place by a white-dominated system – and seemed to do so quite cleverly, expertly. He was evidently smart.
He is also portrayed as an imperfect man, as a womanizer who cheated on his spouse and had many children (this begged the question: Were there any outside of his official relationships? And, if so, how many?). I appreciated that the picture didn’t gloss everything over, but infidelity is sadly one of the flaws that people most easily tolerate in their male heroes.
Beyond that, we aren’t told much about his character. We understand that he felt compelled to take arms to defeat the white oppressors in his country but it wasn’t clear just how much violence there was and how much of it was at his hands. If anything, it looked a little bit like a lop-sided manhunt against Mandela, who had no chance. I’m sure this isn’t entirely the case.
Once in jail a series of unanswered questions popped up: Why were the jailers making concessions to Mandela? Why would the government start to pander to him, and even let have his way when they didn’t get the concessions that they were expecting from him? Why would his apparent intransigence get him results, when in most cases it would have gotten him a flipped bird?
The film was so sketchy that we never really understood what made him such a statesman. Oh, sure he got results, but the film puts him out as a lone wolf half of the time. And let’s be real: everyone knows that he couldn’t have achieved any of what he’s done on his own. So where was his support coming from? Sadly, we only get a sense of what transpired.
Personally, I would have seen this as three films: 1) his life leading to the conflicts as head of the ANC and his arrest, 2) the prison years, 3) the political years. To me, only this could possibly satisfy my curiosity and properly pay tribute to a human monument of modern history. One film simply doesn’t have enough room to cover it all properly.
Thankfully, the cast is quite superb. Idris Elba, in particular, turned out a very strong performance as Mandela. I felt that he hit all the right notes in his portrayal, even if I don’t really know if his rendition closely resembles the African leader. As a character, though, his intelligence, passion, anger, and charisma were all translated very well.
I’ve heard that Elba had the accent right. That may be true, but the whole time I watched the picture I was astonished by how much he sounded like a cross between (fittingly) Morgan Freeman and… Al Pacino in ‘Scarface’ (I half-expected him to pull out a machine gun and scream “Say hello to my little friend!” and mow a few people down).
Idris Elba is 6’3″, built like a black Superman. He towered over almost everyone else in the film; in crowd shots, he was clearly discernible because he was at least half a foot taller than anyone else. The filmmakers had a difficult time hiding Elba’s size when he played Mandela in his later years (they tried, but it was quite obvious that he was huge).
(As a side-note, I wondered if Nelson Mandela was that tall, and so muscular. I read in one place that he was 6’4″, which was close enough. In truth, he was 6’0″. But it was very difficult casting an African actor who had the right height – hence why the producers went with Elba, who is actually British.)
‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ went by pretty quickly for a 2.5-hour film: I actually thought that it was only two hours long. But it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose: those already familiar with the man have no need for a sketchy highlights reel, and those who don’t learn very little about one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.
It was no ‘Malcolm X’, being merely an overview, but, frankly, it’s likely that no filmmaker could have done better with ‘Long Walk to Freedom’: we were, after all, covering 60 years of a man’s life in two and a half hours. And not only that, but it was the life of a man who’s lived enough world-changing experiences for a few lifetimes.
Given all this, it gets a pass from me.
Date of viewing: January 4, 2014