I had every expectation that watching Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom would be the most unusual and complicated viewing experience of my life. Mandela is a deeply influential figure in my life, and while I won’t bore readers with more details about my upbringing (if you wish for more information, you can read about it here or here), to say that he is an icon of massive social, historical, and political importance is a profound understatement. To make the situation more unusual, I watched the film in Cape Town, South Africa, with my family, a scant two and a half weeks after his death. South Africa was still reeling from his death, with retrospectives still plastering the front pages of every newspaper. It comes as no surprise that we expected it to be a difficult and emotionally affecting experience for all four of us (my mother, father, and sister), and it’s worth noting that the thoughts and opinions throughout this review are essentially based on the lengthy discussion we all had after seeing the film.
The film tells Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s (Idris Elba) life story, starting with a brief vignette featuring his coming of age ritual within the Xhosa tribe, and then quickly cutting to his life in Johannesburg as an attorney where he’s shown defending a poor African maid accused of stealing from her employer. This depiction of his early days — including his courtship of his first wife, Evelyn — is easily the weakest and least engaging part of the film, as Chadwick rushes through it as if he’s determined to get to the meat of Mandela’s life. We briefly touch upon his philandering ways that inevitably leads to their acrimonious parting, but it’s only when he meets Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris) and he begins his political career thanks to the camaraderie of fellow revolutionaries Walter Sisulu (Tony Kgoroge), Oliver Tambo (Tshallo Sputla Chokwe) and Ahmed Kathrada (Riaad Moosa) that the film begins to gain some traction with the audience.
From there on, the film rockets through Mandela’s life, and it’s the pacing of it that makes it feel imbalanced, as if in an effort to cover as much ground as possible, it never can truly find its footing. The building of the relationship between Nelson and Winnie is well-depicted, thanks in no small part by a blistering chemistry between Elba and Harris, as well top notch performances by them both. There’s an easy confidence to Elba’s portrayal of the younger Mandela, and Harris plays Winnie with a combination of intelligence and fiery — often dangerously so — passion that makes their scenes some of the film’s best. Yet where it falters in those early years is by failing to actually explain how Mandela came to be so politically motivated. There’s a dramatic depiction of one of his friends dying at the hands of the police, and some fervid dialogue from Sisulu and Tambo, but little to make the audience understand the evolution to revolutionary firebrand. Put differently, there were millions of disaffected black men in South Africa in the 40s — what was it about Mandela’s experiences in those days that made his trajectory alter itself so radically? That question is never answered.
That inconsistency plagues the remainder of the film, even if the performances and Elba’s comfortableness in the role seem grow stronger as Mandela ages onscreen. His political activism with the outlaw African National Congress, the formulation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the ANC’s unofficial armed branch, the subsequent bombing campaign that will eventually lead to his arrest are juxtaposed against his budding relationship and eventual marriage to Winnie, and it’s a solid part of the film, even if it instills little emotional resonance. It’s not until the Rivonia trial, where Mandela and his companions are sentenced to life in prison, that the film has its first real emotional punch. Elba delivers a brief snippet of Mandela’s spectacular “I Am Prepared to Die” speech with a stirring gravitas, and the courtroom’s explosive reaction to both the speech and his conviction are bracing moments. Yet the real star of those scenes is Harris, who walks out of the courtroom tearful yet with head held high, and as she rouses a furious crowd with her cry of “AMANDLA!”, the film has its first epic moment.
It’s actually the lack of epic moments that surprises the most, however. Most curious to all of us who watched it were the things that were left out that would have given greater insight into both what made Mandela great and what made South Africa such a brutal and complex regime. Little explanation of the depth of Apartheid’s commitment to racism and divisiveness is ever given, instead settling for scenes of poor townships and police violence. Yet there was so much more to Apartheid than that, and instead of it permeating every frame as it should have, Chadwick simply has a couple of brief, uninspired moments that are basically there to say “look, see? RACISM!”
The second half of the film is comprised of Mandela’s 27 years in prison (most of which at the horrific Robben Island prison) as well as the secret talks with government ministers that led to his release and the repealing of the race laws. The film strikes another emotionally resonant note with the absolute brutality of the Robben Island prison guards, yet also misses an important opportunity by skipping how Mandela, in a long and painstakingly patient and difficult process, eventually gained the respect and even help of the guards over time, while also creating an environment of education and learning among the other inmates. As my father noted, that’s a far more important insight into Mandela than showing repeatedly the guards’ cruelty.
On the outside of the prison, we also saw the development of Winnie Mandela, who was routinely harassed, assaulted, arrested, and abused by the South African police during his imprisonment. It’s here that Chadwick does some of his finest work, by humanizing one of the most reviled and controversial figures of the Struggle. Winnie Mandela is a seriously polarizing figure, one who was viewed as a hero by many for standing up to the government, for standing strong during those dark days, for enduring some absolutely brutal treatment. Routinely separated from her children, interrogated, and at one point spending sixteen months in solitary confinement, the film does an excellent job of showing how and why Mandela evolved into the dark, violent, and even tragic figure that she is now. This could never be done without an absolutely riveting performance by Harris, who owns the role perfectly and plays it with equal parts fervor and fury, a loving wife and mother who is transformed into a fierce creature full of hate and rage that simply eats away at her over time.
Similarly, Elba’s role as Mandela is at its best while he’s in prison, and in particular during the negotiations with the government regarding his release and the future of the country. When he defies their expectations by essentially turning down the offer of release because of their refusal to abolish Apartheid, Elba stands tall and with a direct, unflinching gaze that simply commands respect and attention. Similarly, his growing trepidation and frustration with Winnie is palpable, concluding with a devastating scene where they meet and we realize that their relationship is dead. Faced with her indiscretions and illegalities, realizing that she is consumed by an anger so strong that she can no longer think of the greater good, Elba solemnly and sternly simply proclaims, “Loyalty, Winnie Mandela. Loyalty” and it’s conveyed with such emotional force that she almost takes a step back.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is an uneven and often disappointing film, even as it boasts two of the strongest performances I’ve seen this year. It neglects entirely too much of both his life and the times — there’s little mention of the rest of the world’s reactions to both Apartheid and Mandela (who was condemned as a terrorist by Reagan and Thatcher, while supported by numerous Communist governments, creating a curious and difficult global political response). The numerous other key players in the movement are almost completely ignored, even as they serve time in prison together. Other than a couple of mentions early on, if you don’t know names like Sisulu and Tambo and Kathrada and Mhlaba, you’ll never really know who the other men that stood with him at the Rivonia trial were. But more importantly, the film simply never hits its emotional notes, lacking the kind of resonance and effectiveness that a film of such a monumentally important figure should have.
In Richard Attenborough’s riveting 1982 biopic Gandhi, the filmmakers opened the film by stating:
“No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and to try to find one’s way to the heart of the man.”
It’s that sentiment that Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom ultimately fails to live up to. Perhaps it’s true that Mandela’s life was too long and complex and eventful to compress into 139 minutes, and that’s the consequence of endeavoring to encapsulate any one person’s life into a single film. Yet one can still create a narrative that has depth and resonance, one that touches upon the critical moments. And credit is certainly due to Elba and Harris, who each turned in performances that were unbelievably intense and complex and harrowing. Yet the film itself feels uneven, from its stumbling opening to its erratic, strangely unaffecting middle and ending. That trepidation I felt about reviewing the film in this strange context was actually quite unnecessary, and instead I — and the rest of my family — left the theater with no less love and respect for the man, but also feeling little emotional impact from a film that never reaches the heights that it strives for.