Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom Movie Review

PG_13, 141 m., 2013

Idris Elba (Nelson Mandela), Naomie Harris (Winnie Madikizela), Tony Kgoroge (Walter Sisulu), Riaad Moosa (Ahmed Kathrada), Zolani Mkiva (Raymond Mhlaba), Simo Mogwaza (Andrew Mlangeni), Fana Mokoena (Govan Mbeki), Thapelo Mokoena (Elias Motsoaledi), Jamie Bartlett (James Gregory), Deon Lotz (Kobie Coetzee), Terry Pheto (Evelyn Mase), Zikhona Sodlaka (Nosekeni), S’Thandiwe Kgoroge (Albertina Sisulu), Tshallo Sputla Chokwe (Oliver Tambo), Sello Maake (Albert Luthuli). Directed by Justin Chadwick and produced by Anant Singh and David M. Thompson. Screenplay by William Nicholson, based on the autobiography of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, with the emphasis on Long, begins and ends with shots of young African kids running. This is the fastest that anything in this film moves. The pacing of this film is all wrong. That’s it’s biggest fault – but more on that momentarily.

The film begins with Mandela’s voice-over recalling his childhood and his nickname of “Troublemaker,” given to him by his own father. The filmmakers zip forward and we get flashes of, I guess, Mandela as a young tribesman before inexplicably flashing forward yet again to his role as a passionate civil rights attorney in Johannesburg, working alongside but scarcely respected by his white counterparts. Somewhere in there, he meets and leaves a young wife and then meets Winnie (Naomie Harris), a passionate woman represented in the early-going here as something of a cypher who inexplicably drew Mandela’s attention in a crowd one day before luring him into adultery and then marriage and family. The results often resemble a Nelson Mandela’s “Greatest Hits Collection,” as it were. Quick, abrupt and nearly context-free, the film makes it difficult to care.

Idris Elba (films like Prometheus and Pacific Rim, TV like The Wire and Luther) plays the titular black leader of South Africa who started as a marginally respected agitator before spending 27 years in prison for committing a crime with the African National Congress. He is alternately a fiery advocate, speechifying and calling for change one moment, calmly and coolly rallying his fellow prisoners with naive and hopeful directions whilst behind bars the next. His character is that of the typically stoic do-gooder, believing that all’s well that end’s well. Elba is a bit too big and too dark-skinned (despite blown-out lighting which occasionally gives him a lighter hue) if you ask me, but that’s another matter.

The film has been directed by Justin Chadwick, who has some experience with historical dramatization (The Other Boleyn Girl) and adapted from Mandela’s autobiography by novelist-turned-screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Miserables) who himself has experience with historical (melo-)dramatization (Elizabeth: The Golden Age). The film has a rough, hand-held widescreen aesthetic and startlingly choppy editing, perhaps to undo the stately nature of the typical biopic. The results are a mixed bag.

As stated above, the pacing here does it in. The film spends roughly 20-30 minutes zipping through about 20-plus years in the life of its subject. Then, we get about an hour covering 27 years in prison. Then about 20-30 minutes in the post-prison, Zen-like approach to political change that Mandela took, resulting in a political and marital split from his wife. This is probably the most fascinating period in the man’s life and, ultimately, the filmmakers all but wash over it. Winnie is suddenly a militant leader for change to rival her once fiery and angry advocate husband. It seems almost distasteful to suggest, but for this film’s purposes, Winnie may indeed be the Malcolm X to her husbands MLK, Jr. Here, we get flashes of the Winnie Mandela performance that could’ve been, as Harris rises to the occasion despite rather limiting material.

It is a sobering footnote worth making that this film comes shortly after the death of its title subject, in the same year that a different group of filmmakers made alternate biopic Winnie Mandela, starring Jennifer Hudson as that titular character and Terrence Howard as Elba’s altogether opposite. And, lest we forget, only two years ago, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus (2009) gave us Morgan Freeman as the elderly South African leader turned soccer fan contending with a racist soccer team and its respectful captain (Matt Damon). There is, perhaps, still a great Mandela biopic still to be made.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom Movie Poster

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