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Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Directed by: Justin Chadwick

Premise: A biopic about the life of Nelson Mandela, from his early life as a lawyer to his eventual election to the presidency of South Africa.

What Works: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is better in its second half as it covers Mandela’s time in prison and the changing relationship with his wife, Winnie. She is played brilliantly by Naomi Harris and Winnie is the most compelling character in the film. As depicted in the picture, Winnie faces the racial violence on the streets of South Africa while her husband is insulated by his incarceration. She becomes reactionary and violent and although the two of them were united in struggle in the beginning of their relationship, Winnie is consumed by her hate and bitterness and the two of them gradually grow apart. This gives the movie its most impactful moments, as Mandela’s quest for peace costs him something. The other successful aspect of Long Walk to Freedom is the depiction of violence. Events like the Sharpeville Massacre are recreated with a great deal of grit and later when South Africa verges on civil war the filmmakers create a palatable sense of impending violence.

What Doesn’t: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is an example of the mistakes often made in biographical filmmaking. The main problem of this film is that the story has no specific narrative through-line. Biographical storytellers have to identify what specific aspect of their subject’s life that they wish to dramatize. There needs to be a point or a theme about the person’s life that the storytellers are aiming to illustrate and then they must select moments or concoct scenes that dramatize the thesis. Therein lies the challenge. Anyone’s life, but especially someone with as compelling of a biography as Nelson Mandela, has so many people and experiences that it is easy to lose sight of what is important. The filmmakers of Long Walk to Freedom never establish their point and so the movie comes across as a random assembly of scenes instead of a carefully structured and arranged set of moments that lead toward a conclusion. In this regard, the film suffers most heavily in the first half as it introduces many issues and characters but one scene does not logically lead to the next. The other mistake of Long Walk to Freedom is that it keeps Mandela at a distance. Although this isn’t a hagiography the moviemakers seem reluctant to acknowledge Mandela’s failings as a man. The reluctance is understandable, given how beloved Mandela is, but flaws and failures are where we find empathy and humanity in characters. At no point in Long Walk to Freedom does Mandela every display fear, confusion, or even frustration and so he is never accessible. Because of that he never grows as a character and despite running over two hours in length, Long Walk to Freedom never characterizes Mandela. As a result of this poor storytelling, the filmmakers tell us nothing interesting or compelling about their subject. Long Walk to Freedom also suffers from the miscasting of Idris Elba as Mandela. Elba is a fine actor but he is wrong for the role physically. Mandela was a slight figure of human dimensions and like Gandhi his figure was part of his success as a politician and as a symbol of peace. Elba has a large, muscular stature and he dominates his scenes with his physical presence. This turns Mandela into a larger than life movie star but it was the combination of physical frailty and a gentle, non-threatening demeanor that made the real Mandela so engaging and effective.

Bottom Line: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom improves over the course of the story and because it ends on a better note than it begins the film is satisfactory. The filmmakers fall into the common traps of biographical filmmaking and so what they’ve made is a fairly average movie about an extraordinary man.

Episode: #473 (January 12, 2014)