The beginning of Justin Chadwick’s Long Walk to Freedom whizzes from a glossed over circumcision ordeal when Nelson Mandela was in his teens, charts his experience as a young successful lawyer and ends with his politicizing by the ANC within about 20mins. What follows for the next 2 hours is an almost faithful documentation of Mandela’s fight against South Africa’s policy of racial segregation, injustice and institutionalized racism, his trial for conspiracy to overthrow the state, his imprisonment on Robben Island, his release and then his election as the country’s President in front of a white army in 1994.
There’s plenty of newsreel footage documenting the Sharpeville massacre, where the police murdered 69 people offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying the obligatory passbook. There is footage too of the Soweto uprising, where children were shot protesting against the use of Afrikaans in schools. But little is revealed of how Mandela came to head the ANC’s guerilla force, the MK, and their own terrorist activities are faintly referred to. There is no study either, of how Mandela turned into a peace activist from freedom fighter. What he may have studied [and was prevented from studying] or thought about for those 27 years on Robben Island, is barely alluded to.
But what makes this film fascinating is the lens through which the director and the writer choose to show us South Africa’s conflict and Mandela’s own sacrificial journey. The decision by writer William Nicholson to make us witnesses to a break down of what could have been a beautiful, if not difficult, relationship between Mandela and Winnie, turns out to be the film’s saving grace and gives us a unique and very human portrait of Mandela’s second wife, played feelingly by Naomie Harris. The filmmakers have revealed that it was easier to dramatise Winnie as she was a conflicted, challenged and passionate woman, who herself suffered 17 months of isolation in a prison cell. And it shows.
In contrast Mandela, played with quiet humility by Idris Elba, is a pale retreating shadow when compared with his wife, but this is only right. For such a man who is imprisoned and kept away from his family and loved ones for so long, these would be consequences, and for someone who, in the end, advocates forgiveness and peace towards those who have done him great wrong, these also would be the consequences. One of the film’s most enduring images is not a great epic sweep across chanting crowds at a rally nor his triumphant swearing in as South Africa’s first black president, but a shot of Mandela just after his release. He sits at a big dining table meant for more than one and eats alone, silent, quiet, free but alone. To compare this with the film’s earlier images of a Mandela vibrant with sex, joy, anger and passion, is startling and a measure, in simple visual terms, of the personal cost to the freedom fighter turned political leader.
What the film does very well is show us the drastic, long term effects, both negative and positive, that suppression, repression, racial violence, hatred, discrimination and long term imprisonment, can have on a person. It then provides us, through contrasting Mandela and Winnie’s personal journeys, two very different ideological answers to these challenges. Winnie’s response was, in the end, a violent succumbing to revenge and the terrible ‘necklace lynching’ she became so closely associated with. Mandela’s, as the world has witnessed and South Africa has enjoyed, was, as he walked out of prison, to ‘liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor’.
At the Q&A, which followed the end of this special screening, the filmmakers acknowledged that the movie was doing the university rounds in the US and that they were attending many discussion sessions with students. Although faithful to the events surrounding Mandela’s life, I do suspect the film is less faithful to some of Mandela’s early youthful guerilla activities and most certainly, his early personality – it was admitted by the production team that they very much wanted to avoid any kind of slur on Mandela’s character. Whilst these sentiments are admirable and whilst the passion of the filmmakers cannot be denied, the great man himself was well known for never shying away from admitting the darker shades of his personality or episodes in his life. And as artists and human beings, nor should we, for knowledge of Mandela’s mistakes and earlier ideologies can only make his later and final everlasting achievements, both personal and political, even more resonant and inspiring, not less so because of them.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom will be released in cinemas on January 3, 2014.