Aspects of his life have been portrayed on big and small screens by everyone from Sidney Poitier to Morgan Freeman to Dennis Haysbert to Terrence Howard, in everything from the British satirical television show “Spitting Image” to a TV mini-series and the Oscar nominated “Invictus.”
“Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom,” starring Idris Alba, and adapted from Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, attempts to cover almost seven decades of his story.
Mandela wore many titles. Born into the Thembu royal family in rural South Africa we first see him as an adult in 1942 Johannesburg. He’s a lawyer in a country where a judge contemptuously refers to him as “boy.”
Through direct exposure to social injustice he becomes politicized and soon the young attorney is the public face of African resistance. “Why should we obey their laws?” he says of the white minority who run the country. “We don’t have a vote. They are having a party and we’re not invited.”
From street corner speechmaking and taking part in non-violent boycotts he soon rises to prominence in the African National Congress. From there, in retaliation for government brutality against black South Africans the ANC turned to radical activism, leading to the arrest and conviction of Mandela and several colleagues. Imprisoned for treason he spends the next twenty-seven years separated from his wife Winnie (Naomie Harris), his family and country but he never gives up hope.
In 1992, with the eyes of the world on South Africa, Mandela is released, having brokered a deal with President F.W. de Klerk (Gys de Villiers) to abolish apartheid and establish multiracial elections. In 1994 he was elected South Africa’s first black president.
The movie is a Coles Notes of Mandela’s storied life, adopting a greatest hits style of story telling. All the major highlights of his time are covered and as a quick history lesson it works well. It shows the scope, importance and influence of the man’s life, but the all-inclusive approach brings with it information overload. How do you wedge a life as big as Mandela’s into a two-hour-and-fifteen minute movie?
There’s a shorthand these kind of big biopics use. For instance, when Mandela meets Winnie for the first time he comments on how she is the first black social worker at a large hospital and adds that she is also the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. The two bits of unconnected info—expositional and declarative—fall into a classic style of story telling these sprawling movies use to convey a lot of information in as little time as possible but don’t sound authentic to the ear.
“Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom” feels old fashioned, like the kind of biography Richard Attenborough specialized in.
The movie may have been more effective if the filmmakers had chosen instead to examine one aspect of Mandela’s life. Recently “My Week With Marilyn” took seven days in the life of Marilyn Monroe and used the condensed time frame to really explore the actress’s character and the result was revelatory.
With a life as rich in detail as Mandela’s there are more than enough opportunities to dissect the story into interesting eras.
Having said that, “The Long Walk to Freedom” is an interesting movie. There’s beautiful South African music and scenery punctuated by ugly scenes of racism, a powerful performances from Alba and Harris who both bring passion and heat to their roles.
At the end of the sprawling story, however, it is Mandela’s legacy of love, forgiveness and reconciliation that makes the biggest impression.