Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom chronicles the life and times of South African civil rights icon Nelson Mandela, leading up to his election as the country’s first black chief executive under a proper democracy. After briefly touching on his youth in a rural African village, the film introduces Mandela (Idris Elba) – also referred to as ‘Madiba’ - as a lawyer around the mid-20th century, when he soon joined the African National Congress (ANC) as a courtroom soldier in the battle against institutionalized racism and race-based social/economic inequality in Apartheid-era South Africa.
Nelson’s lifestyle soon costs him his first marriage, before he finds (and weds) a kindred spirit in Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris), an equally progressive-minded social worker. However, when Nelson and his fellow protestors abandon their non-violent resistance for a sabotage campaign against the Apartheid government, he ends up being captured, convicted and informed that he will spend the remainder of his life in prison (rather than be allowed to become a martyr to his cause). Over the years that follow, change takes place both within Mandela and in the world around him – though neither his freedom nor peace in his country prove easy to come by.
Morgan Freeman’s performance as the elder Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is considered by many to be a definitive portrayal of the man, yet that film highlights just a single noteworthy incident from the recently-deceased anti-Apartheid crusader’s life; moreover, there ‘Madiba’ isn’t even the protagonist. By comparison, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a proper memoir, in terms of its scope, scale and respectful yet critically-objective tone; but as a work of biographical cinema, it’s far less revolutionary than the subject whose life it depicts.
The script – based on Mandela’s autobiography and written by William Nicholson (Les Misérables) - is foremost a Cliff Notes summary of key events in Nelson’s life (before he became president of South Africa). However, because the screenplay pauses every so often to explore Mandela and Winnie’s characters in depth – exposing their personal follies, moral shortcomings and self-motivated desires in the process – it elevates Long Walk to Freedom as a work of art. Still, on a pure storytelling level, the film often feels like a homework assignment you’ve been required to watch – insightful, for sure, but something of a chore to sit through (especially with a running time of close to two and a half hours).
Director Justin Chadwick (The First Grader) and cinematographer Lol Crawley (Hyde Park on Hudson) bathe flashbacks to Mandela’s youth in the plains of Africa- along with later sequences in that setting (see: Mandela and Winnie’s wedding) – with a glowing sunlight. This visually gorgeous (if somewhat melodramatic) composition technique ultimately works to highlight Nelson’s spiritual connection with his homeland, and provides a fitting contrast to the harsher, desolate colors and imagery of Mandela’s time in prison – as well as footage showing unrest and violence in the streets of South Africa, over the decades.
Unfortunately, as lovely as the film can be to look at, it’s more unwieldy in terms of construction. There is a lot of material covered here; beginning with the important events in Nelson’s life before his imprisonment, the film eventually splits its time between Mandela’s evolution – from aggressive and inspirational activist to wizened and peaceful leader – and Winnie’s journey in the opposite direction (from charitable social activist to fiery rabble-rouser). Chadwick and his editor Rick Russell (44 Inch Chest) cover all the necessary bases, yet not with as much attention to detail as would be preferable, and often at the price of a flowing pace (as mentioned before) – especially during the late second act/early third act.
Idris Elba is a taller and more physically-intimidating figure than the real Nelson Mandela, yet his size becomes a useful visual metaphor for expressing the man’s powerful spirit and charisma – making it all the more clear why he would earn such a loyal following. Of course, that wouldn’t matter if Elba wasn’t able to illustrate so many emotional facets of Mandela the person throughout time – socially-progressive lawyer, philandering husband, caring father, righteous terrorist and iron-willed pacifist. No surprise that the celebrated actor does all of that with his performance, and while maintaining a consistent South African accent the whole time. The movie’s flaws aside, Elba’s portrayal of Mandela is destined to become the definitive one – for a number of people, anyway.
There are a number of supporting players in the film, ranging from Mandela’s first wife – the religious Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto) – to his fellow ANC members-turned-cellmates like Walter Sisulu (Tony Kgoroge) and Ahmed Kathrada (Riaad Moosa). However, Long Walk to Freedom is foremost Elba and Naomie Harris’ show.
Although she has less screen time than Elba, Harris still manages to do an excellent job at fleshing out Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s personality, showing a vast range of emotions as time and exterior forces strive to break her spirit and harden her heart. Elba will receive a lot of awards season attention (and rightfully so), but Harris deserves her fair share of acclaim, too.
Elba and Harris’ performances not only serve as emotional anchors for Long Walk to Freedom - they also infuse some hot blood into what is otherwise a classy, yet tepid and occasionally stilted biographical film. The final result is a motion picture that isn’t really a stirring testament to the late Nelson Mandela’s achievements and incredible life – but there’s enough that’s good about it to earn a recommendation.
In case you’re still undecided, here is the trailer for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom:
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom runs 145 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language. Now playing in theaters nationwide.