Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend the red carpet Premier of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Dressed up in my Assassin’s Creed T-Shirt I marched into Century City and demanded the best champagne to oil my critical (ly broken) mind and prepared for a marathon of Mandela. I thought to myself through star struck eyes that it is unfathomable that so few movies have been made about one of the most iconic and loved figures in history and yet at the same time can understand this reluctance; Nelson Mandela is larger than life to millions across the globe, perhaps his story is also larger than the big screen. I had to find out.
Writer William Nicholson and director Justin Chadwick attempt the impossible by following Mandela’s life in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, from young village boy to President, including his 27 years of incarceration. This is made possible though by only lightly touching on many of the themes and issues that made Mandela so prolific. Whether it’s his progression from promoting peaceful resistance to armed struggle or his clever and subtle manipulation that would finally allow the guards on Robben Island to see their captives as men, the film is crammed to bursting with content that cannot be fully explored. That being said, what they have managed to do in the 152 minutes that they have, should be acknowledged.
Firstly, you have one of the best performances this year by Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela, a performance that I am sure will win him a nomination for Best Actor if not the coveted golden statue. I have to admit I was sceptical at first, but soon enough was thinking to myself ‘wow’, ‘how’ and ‘wtf’ all at the same time. I cannot think of a better choice for the role to be honest. He brings intensity, sensitivity and charm all while carrying a huge burden that manifests itself in the way he moves and talks, especially in the later years.
Sadly they did fall short with the makeup when he first enters Robben Island, but I am sure if you put him in a tutu and painted him yellow you would still see Mandela; yes, he is that good.
Almost equally as good is Naomi Harris’ performance as Winnie Mandela, a performance that left me with more of an understanding of the often controversial figure. In fact, most of the cast excelled in their roles, whether it was Terry Pheto as Madiba’s first and often forgotten about wife Evelyn or Tony Kgoroge as Walter Sisulu, each were brilliant in their own ways.
I think the fact that Nicholson and Chadwick decided to focus more on the life of Mandela than on the social crimes of apartheid is a double edged sword. On the one hand it allows us to get a better glimpse of who Mandela was, what his motivations were and the pain he carried (indeed there is one scene that will have you in tears). We all know the story, we all know the Legend, so seeing Elba humanise Mandela was refreshing; I don’t think you can even remotely compare Morgan Freeman’s performance in Invictus, something I think younger audiences will appreciate.
However, I also feel it is a bit of a missed opportunity to explore what apartheid did to the social fabric of South Africa on an international stage. Smaller productions have indeed touched on the topic but I think a large-scale production, one produced by South Africa’s pre-eminent film producer Anant Singh, could really have made an impact. I also appreciate that Nicholson and Chadwick wanted to move away from the ‘educational horror documentary’ to a more moving tale of a legend, and this is where the movie excels.
By the end of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom I had mixed feelings. I enjoyed the film because the performances of both Idris Elba and Naomi Harris were mind and soul blowing, but I also wanted Chadwick to investigate issues that are touched on in a little more detail. We are made to watch harrowing scenes of the Sharpeville Massacre and the Soweto Riots, filmed with great respect, but very little is followed up on. Those not in the know would ponder what relevance that had in the life of Mandela and this happens consistently throughout the movie.
I think the majority of people who watch Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom will come out very happy they did, I know I did. It is a great depiction of the legend of Mandela but tries to bite off too much which may make it feel too long for others.
A special thanks to my photographer/driver Ingrid T Peters.
Last Updated: November 27, 2013