Dir. by Justin Chadwick - 2 hrs. 21 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
It feels bad to not have really enjoyed this movie. I was bummed out more by the fact that it wasn't enthralling and uplifting than by the things that Nelson Mandela himself had to endure and overcome during his life. My ambivalence about this film was complicated by the fact that this was based on his autobiography (which I have not read), and there were some elements of "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" that I wasn't sure if I ought to chalk up to Mandela's version of events, or to the adaptation process of his book. It's unfortunate; the failings of the film introduce doubt to Mandela himself, and I'd kind of like to know if those were his own, or were the result of parsing and editing. Having said that, I'm not hugely likely to read his autobiography to find out (this is just a matter of time, it's unlikely I will get around to reading even a fraction of the books that I'd like to in my lifetime).
I also, in the course of light conversation with a cashier at a store, had to explain who Nelson Mandela was, after saying that I'd seen the movie. Sigh. So we'll keep this brief. Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) was a South African lawyer, then activist, then prisoner, then head of state. He was a crucial figure in the anti-Apartheid movement, was imprisoned for twenty-seven years for some things he did, and was released partially to help quell race-related violence during 1990. I mean, if you didn't know that much about him, take ten minutes and hit up his Wikipedia entry, he was kind of a big deal.
Good stuff first. Idris Elba was a good choice to play the role, as was his co-star, Naomie Harris, who played Mandela's second (and most famous) wife, Winnie. And the South African setting was a gorgeous backdrop, both it's rural settings and it's cities. Mandela's life was eventful enough to make sure that there weren't any lulls, and I feel like the big things that needed to be covered were mostly covered. For the most part, though, I didn't feel like the events were covered in the way that I wanted to see. That's at least partly a matter of taste and storytelling style, but I'll dig in a little more to explain what I mean.
To my mind, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" portrays Mandela as someone whom things happen to. The quick narrative about his life backs this up; what people know about Mandela is that he was put in prison for twenty-seven years. How this is explained depends heavily on one's politics, and it's often spun as being a political move that resulted in him having nearly a third of his life taken from him. Mandela (and his ANC peers) pled guilty to what amounts to terrorist acts against a racist government, that had broken the largely non-violent tension by gunning down unarmed protesters. Mandela left South Africa (which is glossed over in this film) to learn how to fight back, and did so, engaging in sabotage. I'm not condemning Mandela's actions, even resorting to violent means to defend himself (and others) against violent, racially-motivated aggression. This is more a case of not winning the fight (at least not immediately), and then being at the mercy of the victor. But Mandela was not a man of inaction.
So there's some things that I would want to know out of a story about Mandela. First, a good accounting of exactly how he "went rogue," and exactly what that meant. This portion of his life is essentially told in montage - it's not even clear that he left South Africa at any point, and the consequences of the bombings of municipal buildings don't have clear consequences. Once, they knock the power out for a city, and one of the ANC rebels doesn't make it out of one of the bombings alive. But it's established earlier in the film that the law didn't really care that much about dead South African blacks, and that can't realistically be the motive behind the hunt for Mandela and his trial. I'm left to assume that there were more casualties than were admitted to, or that Mandela was a very big deal and was up to more than mischief, which wasn't properly shown. There are scenes of him addressing crowds, but there doesn't seem to be much organization behind what he's doing, which makes it seem weird that the South African government would be so wound up about a random rabble-rouser.
His time in prison is fairly well-accounted for, as it should be. One of the most difficult things to do creatively is to convey emotions like tedium and boredom, because you can't provide a visceral experience of those emotions and expect your audience to stick around. This film sidesteps that issue by concentrating on the things that Mandela missed out on, like deaths in the family, children growing up, the progression of his movement, his inability to help protect his wife from her own brushes with the law. There was one exchange that ended up being baffling, though, where the warden seems to either not have his complete faculties, or is a habitual liar who can't remember what he has told people. The third main thing that I'd want to know about is his relationship with Winnie, which is covered well, but ends up throwing her under the bus so badly that it feels like that can't possibly be what the source material had to say about her. But maybe I'm wrong about that, their union did end in divorce, and those things are sometimes fairly acrimonious. Also, curiously, they briefly cover Mandela's first marriage, but never admit that there was a third, after Winnie.
The last main thing that I would want covered is Mandela's path from prisoner to Head of State. Events are shown, but with little explanation as to the logic behind them. The biggest moment comes when Mandela is put on live TV (at least that's how it was portrayed), ostensibly to condemn retaliation after another massacre from the slightly less-racist government. Mandela seizes the opportunity, basically declaring that he's right, everyone who is angry is wrong, and that he'll be running for President shortly. It was a ballsy move. Imagine if Kanye West had followed up his assertion that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by declaring he was running for President, and that you could donate to his campaign at yeezy.com once everyone was done donating to the Red Cross for hurricane relief, and then he won and actually was the first black President of the United States of America. That's what we're talking about here. Once you step back, Mandela's path is so insane and improbable that I feel that it requires some understanding of what was going on in his head, and throughout "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," we rarely get any indication of that.
Maybe that's the biggest gripe I have with this film, that we never get inside of Nelson Mandela's head, even in a film made from his very own words. The way things are presented, there's no other way that he could have reacted to them. When he meets Winnie, he's smitten. When one of his children dies, he cries. When he's told that he's not worth anything, he rejects that. Why not just tell us that after he eats dinner, he eventually poops, and when he takes a shower, he tends to get wet? If the truth of the matter is that he didn't have much of a life or many interests outside of his activism, then this film falls into the trap of conveying boredom by being boring. If that wasn't the case, this film misses any insight entirely. "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" isn't a bad film, it's an underachieving one that doesn't leave me that much more well-informed about his life than I was when I went into it. I almost never advocate films being longer, but if Mandela's life isn't worth three hours to tell, with proper context and insight into his personality, I don't know whose is.
2 / 5 - Theatre