Thursday, January 16, 2014
Due to the usual nutty holiday deadlines at this paper, it's taken me this long to catch up with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The good news is this biographical drama from Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) is in many ways as thoughtful and imposing as both its subject, the formidable Nelson Mandela, and its impressive star, Idris Elba.
The real-life Mandela passed away this past December, at the age of 95, lauded and eulogized the world over as an icon of peace, humility, forgiveness and cooperation. But Mandela was far more complicated than the stoic, sagacious, grandfatherly peacemaker so beloved by the world in his later years.
Chadwick's film (based on Mandela's own autobiography) is a manful attempt to explore the currents of deeply ingrained racism, political injustice, and corrupted human nature that turned an ordinary South African child into a lawyer, activist, and uncompromising fighter for social justice and racial equality—at any cost.
The story touches all the known incidents of Mandela's political life: his trial for conspiracy (and his famous speech professing himself "prepared to die" for the ideal of equality), his 27 years in prison, mostly spent in one tiny cell. (Where black inmates suffer such petty indignities as being made to wear short pants.)
But the film is most effective in showing the toll Mandela's activism takes on his personal life.
Driven off not only by his dangerous politics, but by Mandela's extramarital affairs, his first wife leaves him and whisks away the children he rarely sees again. After he marries vivacious Winnie Madikizela (a vibrant Naomie Harris), she bears two daughters, but they're still small children when Mandela goes to prison.
Elba's presence centers the story as his Mandela evolves and matures. And the film succeeds in portraying both Mandela and Winnie with human faults intact on their respective long walks to their destinies. (Read more in this week's Good Times)