Nelson Mandela is said to have mistaken Idris Elba for himself when viewing a clip of the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Maybe it was the medication (he had just been released from hospital with a lung infection), or maybe it was symbolic of just how much Elba embodied his mannerisms. Based on Nelson Mandela’s 1995 eponymous autobiography, this biopic attempts to encapsulate the soul behind the man with a remarkable story to tell of his journey from farm boy to President.
The film covers Mandela’s early life, coming of age, education, work as an ambitious lawyer and 27 years on Robben Island. Yes, I know. A lot, and it shows. The 2 hour 20 minute motion picture seems weighed down by its mammoth task and stumbles along the way to the finish. Important characters become one-dimensional due to the time constraints, and it seems that Mandela almost single-handedly brought down the oppressive regime. Some information is missing, some events are glossed ever and others over-dramatised but ultimately it doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant truths of the ANC’s violent struggle against apartheid and Mandela’s womanising and failed marriages. It doesn’t glorify the icon but rather humanises him and is at its best in the intimate moments with Winnie (Naomie Harris), his children, his fellow ANC campaigners, and even his jailers.
Daniel Day-Lewis had a tough job playing one of America’s most beloved presidents in Lincoln, but whereas he had room to manoeuvre (no one knows how Honest Abe actually spoke), Elba did not. He had the tough job of emulating someone so well-known, revered and emblematic of South Africa to the world. In a role initially considered for Denzel Washington, Elba captures Mandela’s voice, accent, self-deprecating humour, gait and mannerisms so brilliantly it almost seemed effortless. Naomie Harris is superb, raw, passionate as his soulmate come political rival Winnie, and as Harris admits, “The hardest thing I’ve ever done.” With help from dialogue coach Fiona Ramsay, the two British leads make you almost believe they are natives.
Director Justin Chadwick (The First Grader) and screenwriter William Nicholson (Les Misérables) had a difficult task and they managed to produce a stirring narrative of the apartheid icon. He may not have been the only contributor, but he played a key role in the solution that avoided an all out war. The cinematography by Lol Crawley is magnificent and made me feel incredibly homesick. The interspersing of actual footage, historical moments and flashbacks to his childhood are where Chadwick deftly manages to avoid the usual clichés in film-making. Despite knowing how the story plays out, I was still moved to tears. His forgiving nature and calm attitude is all the more laudable when Winnie’s zealous response would be the more understandable one.
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Nelson Mandela
It has its flaws, it’s not completely warts-and-all in its attempt to remain respectful to the former South African president and Winnie (a consultant on the project). Those flaws are not deal-breakers however and can be overlooked. Maybe that’s because I grew up in South Africa and this is part of my story, or maybe it’s because it is a deeply moving account of the man that, against all odds, fought for equality for all.
Posthumously Mandela will continue to be celebrated and this movie is just one way to commemorate the wisdom, the sacrifice and the freedom gained by one of the most inspirational leaders of the 20th century.
What did you think? In step with the man behind the activist or too leisurely a stroll down memory lane? Your turn on the soapbox in 3,2, 1.
(As seen on TheSouthAfrican.com)