I was a young adult when the song “Free Nelson Mandela” became one of our generation’s mantras, so brilliantly penned song by The Specials. It was an interlocking follow up to my experience of Peter Gabriel’s Biko during the downward spiral of South African Apartheid. So seeing the film’s poster nagged at me to come full circle by screening this impressive feature.
From the very beginning Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is a big movie. Starting with the introduced to Nelson Mandela as a youth going through the ritual to manhood. The establishing scenes move quickly, and for me a little too quickly, to establish his character. The next jump comes with Nelson in Orlando, sans tribal gear, tightly dressed in a business suit and tie in 1942 . In this sequence we become acquainted with the arbitrary nature and cruelty of Apartheid when a friend of Mandela is arrested for not having his ID to be brutally murdered by the local police while he’s in custody. From here the story gives you incident after incident of racial discrimination and class struggle that leads to Mandela’s transformation to ANC advocate that leads to him becoming an ANC leader.
Idris Elba plays a convincing role as Mandela and Naomie Harris delivers a impressive performance as an increasingly bitter Winnie Mandela. The weakest element to the movie is it’s trying to pull all the elements of an epic life into a 2 hour and 16 minute movie. It is truly difficult to convey these various vignettes into one seamless compelling story. In this regard the movie is at its weakest. In other words at points the film seemed disjointed or jumpy and at other times it seemed long or it drags. The soundtrack to Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom was amazing. It brought me back to my love for African music. I thought about King Sunny Adé and the evocative revolutionary Fela Kuti, among others, when scenes would drift into the music of the people. The African music was a countering force to some of the occasional oddly paced elements of the film that made the movie more intimate and real. The make or break moment eventually came after Nelson Mandela’s had won his freedom and entered in negotiations in the most clever manner with the De Klerk government. I found the negotiation scene with the De Klerk government officials a smartly written and engaging bit of cinema. But it was the movie’s treatment of Nelson and Winnie’s break up and disassociation form one another that would be the deciding factor in whether this movie delivered the goods with a powerful turning point in the story.
The movie to my pleasure, first didn’t shy away from the topic of their break up and secondly, it was done brilliantly, truly portrayed the humanity of the moment in what must have been a very tense situation. Nelson being the pacifist pragmatist and Winnie the intractable bitter revolutionary meet in a quiet room after Winnie had given a impassioned revolutionary speech. Nelson saw the fear and cowardice that was generated Apartheid and its violence amongst the white population of South Africa. Both, Nelson’s and Winnie’s exchanges were willed with passion and commitment to their ideals. He saw Apartheid as a disease he didn’t want translate to his culture, while Winnie wanted to seize the moment for revenge for her and other’s years of mistreatment and persecution. The visuals were on target for the story with Nelson in a suit and Winnie in camouflage fatigues. This often is the dialectic of revolution, the declared goals may be similar, but the route is often in dispute. Nelson, true to his character established early on in the feature continues steadily and in a humaine manner to its conclusion. Nelson rejects Winnie’s choice for violent revolution and retribution in favor of incremental peaceful transition and unity for the nation. You can see her character deflate in the scene as it becomes clear that he will not be joining in her revenge. It is easily the most poignant moment in the movie and speaks volumes of who Nelson Mandela is as a leader and as a man. Even in this moment he could have laced his comments to her with vitriol and recrimination for what he could have seen as her betrayal of him and his vision, but he chose to be gentle and as conciliatory as any one could be under the circumstances. It was an impressive arch for story telling in the most intimate moment that effectually set the tone for portraying Mandela’s vision for his life in this sequence.
The story evolves to his Presidency and essential peaceful transition to a democratic society that notes his leadership during a tumultuous period in South African history. As with any bio pics there are very few surprises, given you know your history or followed the high points in the News on Nelson Mandela’s life, then you know where the story is going to go. The art in a movie is telling such a story in a relatable way and engaging enough to pull into the story. I found at time the story sputtered or dragged in trying to communicate expansive 50 years biography that was still strongly told with powerful moments that were convincing and vivid. For the uninitiated it’s a compelling history lesson on South African Apartheid and for those who were tuned into the history, it fills in essential gaps that open a unique line of sight to an amazing human bring and a larger than life historical figure.