Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

February 8, 2014
'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' (2013)
Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela
'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' (2013) Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela

There is a special tone reserved for the bio-pic of some major historical figure. Such films tend to be stately, respectful, almost in awe of their subject. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a textbook example of the genre. Despite the obligatory disclaimer that it will show us the hero as we have never seen him before, there is nothing in this film to force a reassessment of Nelson Mandela, his personality or achievements.

Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) is probably the gold standard for such films, and British director, Justin Chadwick, has pitched Mandela in a very similar vein. As a scriptwriter he has employed William Nicholson, who has worked with Attenborough and knows how to squeeze a life’s story into a span of 2-3 hours.

Perhaps the single most important ingredient for success is an outstanding actor in the title role. Ben Kingsley produced the performance of his life as Gandhi, and Idris Elba does the same as Mandela. Elba is the same height as Mandela but doesn’t resemble him physically. The strength of his performance comes from his mastery of Mandela’s manner of speaking, and the sense of conviction he brings to the part.

It’s the kind of role that can propell an actor into the top tier of stardom. The same applies, to a lesser extent, to Naomie Harris, as Winnie Mandela. It’s a big step-up from being the James Bond dollybird in Skyfall (2012).

The movie takes us from Mandela’s childhood in a Xhosa village to his early career as a lawyer, and maturity as a political activist. We follows his anti-apartheid activities; his trial and long years of imprisonment; and his final ascent to power as leader of a democratic South Africa.

There are very few aspects of this story that provide any surprises. The first ‘shock horror’ discovery is that Mandela had an eye for the girls. This culminated in his affair with Winnie Madikizela, who became his second wife in 1958. By this stage his marriage with his first wife, Evelyn, had already broken down – a casualty of his extramarital adventures and the pressures of an activist’s existence.

The other faintly controversial observation is that, unlike Gandhi, Mandela did not renounce the use of violence. On the contrary, he felt compelled to participate in acts of sabotage and terrorism when it became clear the white government would respond to dissent in the most brutal manner. The flashpoint was the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960, in which the police fired on an unarmed crowd of 5,000 to 7,000 protestors, killing 69 people.

One awaits the Sharpeville incident in this film, aware of its significance as a catalyst for South Africa’s political isolation. It drew a resolution from the United Nations Security Council condemning the apartheid system, and led to the foundation of at least two armed resistance groups.

This sense of inevitability is an unavoidable problem in the big bio-pic. We always know what’s going to happen so the only interest lies in how the story is told. With Mandela’s arrest and trial in 1962 we are brought up hard against one of the political highlights of the story, but it is a scenario to put any director to the test. During proceedings Mandela made an acclaimed three hour speech. In the movie we get little more than the last paragraph, in which he calls for a democratic and free society and ends with the words: “it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Then we have the problem of the 27 years in prison that followed the trial. Chadwick’s solution is to give a detailed account of the brutal conditions that confronted Mandela and his comrades when they arrived at the Rodden Island penitentiary. From this point the years slip by quickly, with Mandela getting progressively greyer. In the outside world the violence is escalating, with Winnie now in the forefront of the armed struggle, growing more estranged from her husband. He becomes a kind of sage while she resembles a member of the Black Panthers.

There can be no doubt that Mandela is one of the great political figures of the twentieth century. The problem for a film-maker is how to convey that sense of greatness without falling for all the bombastic, sentimental clichés that Hollywood has indulged for generations.

Mandela’s most remarkable achievement may have been to prevent a bloodbath when majority rule was finally accomplished. There were so many scars, so many injustices, so many scores to settle that only someone who had suffered as much as Mandela could exercise the moral authority required to quell the rising tide of violence. He argued that instead of seeking revenge, the citizens of the new South Africa had to demonstrate their moral superiority to the barbarous regime they had deposed. He showed, contrary to every colonialist prejudice, that blacks could be more civilised than whites. In place of the firing squad there was the Truth Commission.

Mandela is an ambitious project for a director better known for TV work and a minor historical romance, The Other Boleyn Girl (2008). Although the film has the slightly ponderous feeling common to almost every major bio-pic it is a more successful proposition that I had anticipated. Mandela’s image is already ‘larger than life’, and Chadwick adds no emphasis where none is required. If it is impossible to avoid sentimentality altogether this is because we are dealing with an emotional journey that engulfed a nation, and indeed, the world. Perhaps the corniest moment in the film is when the U2 song, Ordinary Love, swells up over the closing credits.

As a corollary the dreadful Bozo, sorry Bonzo, from U2, got to make a speech at this year’s Grammies in which he announced that his feelings about Mandela were “personal, very very personal.” In this world there are figures like Nelson Mandela whom history will forever celebrate, and those who grab every opportunity to celebrate themselves.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
UK/South Africa, rated M
152 mins
Directed by Justin Chadwick; screenplay by William Nicholson, from an autobiography by Nelson Mandela; starring Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Jamie Bartlett

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 8 February, 2014.