by Kathie Smith
Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a disappointingly straightforward biopic eerily released six days before his death, functions as a dramatic transcription of Nelson Mandela’s Wikipedia page, noting historical and personal benchmarks of one of the most influential people of our time with the halfhearted emphasis of a compulsory timeline. For all its scope and ambitions, Mandela suffers from attempting to be an authoritative document on Mandela and his achievements. Beginning with Mandela’s move to Johannesburg in the early 1940s and ending with his election in 1994, the film unfortunately ends up watering down the impact of 60 years of activism and diplomacy into a well made Lifetime special. But if there was ever a good time to read, or in this case watch, Mandela’s Wiki entry, it is now—and why not do it with a big screen style of production?
Director: Justin Chadwick
Producers: François Ivernel, Cameron McCracken, Harvey Weinstein, Anant Singh, David M. Thompson, Brian Cox, Vlokkie Gordon
Writers: Nelson Mandela (autobiography), William Nicholson
Cinematographer: Lol Crawley
Editor: Rick Russell
Music: Alex Heffes
Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Simo Mogwaza, Fana Mokoena, Terry Pheto
Countries: UK/South Africa
Premiere: September 7, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: November 29, 2013
US Distributor: The Weinstein Company
The film opens with a geographic juxtaposition in Mandela’s formative years: after he participates in a traditional rite of passage for young men in his hometown of Mvezo, we cut quite abruptly to working as a lawyer on the bustling streets of Johannesburg. The two moments are meant as psychological anchors for Mandela and his future convictions, with one foot firmly planted with his ancestry and the other with South Africa’s modernization. But there is also a visual and atmospheric contrast that is well pronounced between the rolling hills of the grasslands and the grungy streets of the city, and between the dress of the Xhosa people and the Eurocentric suit and tie.
From here, Mandela follows a pat chronological survey, very similar to the news coverage in the weeks since Mandela’s death with necessary bullet points from international headlines: membership with the African National Congress, marriage to Evelyn and marriage to Winnie, radical responses to increased apartheid legislation, the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, secret meetings and years in hiding, and the arrest in 1962 that would land him and his colleagues in prison for life on Robben Island. Obviously, the tide turned on that conviction with worldwide awareness of the oppression in South Africa, and Mandela was released and elected president. Screenwriter William Nicholson uses Mandela’s autobiography as his source and the need to service certain touchstones feels painfully pronounced if not a little forced.
Although the movie breaks the two-hour mark—by 19 minutes—this still constrains the narrative into a whirlwind tour that not only prevents any real revelations but also signals a creatively sparse structure. The production plays authentication to the nines, recreating moments and personas with the greatest of care (some of which is proven by archival footage that runs over the end credits.) Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, who play Nelson and Winnie, are key in making this predictable ride both engaging and avidly watchable. Elba’s abilities (well-known by fans of The Wire, but neglected in recent films like Pacific Rim and Prometheus) are put to the test as he carefully crafts this public persona into something other than parody.
Ultimately, Mandela’s adherence to convention can be categorized as more of a letdown than a flaw that will, in all probability, propel its popularity with a wide audience and solidify token nominations and awards in the coming months. If you are able to disregard the pummeling closing song “Ordinary Love” by U2, Mandela is an agreeable celebration of one man’s incredible leadership and his unprecedented mark he left on his country in its collective ability to triumph over oppression. But surely in retrospect we can hope for a less dry and less conservative reading of this colorful and important material in years to come.