Mark Reviews Movies

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Justin Chadwick

Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Deon Lotz

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language)

Running Time: 2:19

Release Date: 11/29/13 (limited); 12/25/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 25, 2013

With the recent death of Nelson Mandela, the focus on his life has rightly been his role, both as a political figure and as the country's first democratically elected black President, in leading South Africa through the turbulent but potentially devastating period immediately after the end of apartheid. After serving a 27-year prison sentence for fighting against the inherent injustice and immorality of that system, he had every reason to despise the people responsible for his imprisonment, the right-wing nationalist government that began and enforced systemic racism, and the society that allowed apartheid to last for almost 50 years.

It would have been easy—maybe even natural—for him to have and act upon those feelings. If any part of him did harbor those emotions, though, he pushed them aside for the greater cause of unifying South Africa under the idea that there is an intrinsic right of equality for every person, if only in the sense of his or her basic, shared humanity.

It's perhaps too tempting to wax philosophical and awed by the ideal for which Mandela strived and came to represent in the wake of his death. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which obviously was completed before its subject's passing, has no such ambitions. The movie is a traditional biography that provides a basic overview of the man's pre-presidential political life without offering much in the way of an actual exploration of it.

The closest it comes to any kind of depth to Mandela's development as a political player is in the movie's juxtaposition of his life to that of his second wife. The two begin with a common outlook and purpose, eventually face similar circumstances, and ultimately respond in completely different ways. Of course, this only emphasizes the movie's core shortcoming by proffering a second individual whose views and rationales are kept silent as events unfold.

What the dichotomy of Mandela (an effective Idris Elba) and his wife Winnie (Naomie Harris) essentially does is present something of an alternate route the man could have taken if an unknown something—whether it be a shift in circumstances or his character—had changed. It's a form of narrative shorthand, which William Nicholson's screenplay, based on Mandela's autobiography, often implements as a means to hasten the movie's need to get on with each successive chapter of Mandela's life.

The first chapter sees Mandela working at a law firm in Johannesburg in 1942, believing that his professional manner and personal character will overcome any prejudice he might face and finding those beliefs to be naïve. He quickly catches the attention of politically-minded young men in his age group, but he's far too interested in his career and women to take notice. A bus boycott changes all of that, as he witnesses the potential power for change in a grassroots movement. He becomes involved in the African National Congress, which seeks an independent South Africa free of racial injustice, and he becomes even more involved in politics after the election of the National Party in 1948 and the subsequent passage of apartheid legislation.

The movie skips and jumps through time with little context, and after his first marriage fails in the late 1950s, Mandela meets Winnie, a woman even more passionate than he is. In 1960, police open fire on demonstrators in Sharpeville protesting the institution of mandatory passports for black citizens and kill 69 people. The ANC shifts its methods to sabotage, including the bombing of a power plant, for which Mandela and others in the organization are arrested (including multiple other acts that may or may not have happened), tried, and convicted. The sentence is life in prison.

Despite the spread-out nature of the timeline, the movie's first act is its most effective, particularly for the way it presents the lesser-known part of Mandela's life—a time when violence was not only an option but also perceived as a necessity to end apartheid—and does so in a way that contextualizes what a massive change of heart he undergoes over the course of three prisons of various levels of relative comfort. In the small cell at the prison on Robben Island, his communication with the outside world is limited and censored, and as an act of resistance, he tries to convince the warden to allow the black prisoners to wear pants like their white counterparts instead of the prison-issued shorts.

Winnie, meanwhile, is persecuted and imprisoned for no reason other than that she is married to Mandela, and Harris' performance as a wronged woman transforming into revolutionary who encourages the burning alive of people deemed collaborators with the government is chilling. As Mandela begins to see the value of keeping a low profile and, eventually, talking with the oppressors under the guise of "negotiation" (He has no intention of doing so the way they want, but it gets him in the room), Winnie starts to question his loyalty to the cause.

There are simply too many fascinating contradictions and complexities in Mandela's story, and this point-by-point account of his life would rather simply tell us what happened than do any more than scratch the surface of how and why it did. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom certainly benefits from its iconic, inspiring subject, but it's also too perfunctory to do him justice.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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