How could a film ever possibly encompass the extraordinary life of Nelson Mandela? From his early days as a lawyer to his monumental fight to decide the fate of a nation, he accomplished what few have ever done or even dared attempt to do. His is not a life easily brought to the screen, but that has not stopped the filmmakers behind “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” from bravely attempting to tell his powerful story, one that ultimately had an effect upon millions and millions of oppressed South Africans who simply wanted the right to be equals in their own country.
Starting in the 1940s, we meet Mandela (Idris Elba) as a lawyer in Johannesburg. At this point, the rights of the natives are slim, with the law including such travesties as the requirement that they carry around a pass and pay more for their bus fare. Certain acquaintances urge Mandela to join in the fight to end such oppression, a prospect that he eventually gives in to. As their fight continues on, their means become more and more violent, eventually leading to the capture of Mandela and several of his colleagues. He is sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island, but with the help of his wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris), the fight continues back home. Over 27 years later, his release is secured, but the challenge of bringing justice to his people continues as negotiations begin.
Director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson set out with the best of intentions, but in the strictest sense of the phrase, they’ve bitten off much more than they can chew. The film starts off well, showing us Mandela’s day-to-day life as a lawyer and how he eventually became involved in the struggle for South Africa’s freedom, but as soon as he’s sent to prison, it feels as though the film shuts down. I suppose any filmmaker would have a difficult time in continuing the story when their main character is put behind bars for 27 years, and indeed it becomes a rather hard part to translate to the screen in an interesting fashion.
They do their best to carry on, focusing a bit more on how Winnie continues the fight at home with her passionate speeches, in addition to showing us the more impactful moments of Mandela’s stay in prison, such as when he has separate visits from his wife and one of his daughters or when he gets the news of his son dying in a car accident. However, the overall feeling of this middle section becomes one of impatience as you wait for the story to proceed.
Unfortunately its problems don’t end there. As we head into the third act, where some of Mandela’s most important accomplishments are examined, the film reduces them to what comes off as a montage that involve his negotiations, meeting the president of South Africa, and spending time with his family. After doing so many great things, did his accomplishments deserve to be squeezed into a series of clips? Of course not, but again, going back to my original question, how in the world do you even begin to show everything he did in the scope of one film? Perhaps it’s something that simply can’t be done, at least not when you try to cram it all in the final act of a film that spends far too much of its runtime on Mandela’s incarceration.
The greatest strength of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is Idris Elba’s powerful performance as the infamous leader. Like Morgan Freeman in “Invictus” before him, Elba delivers a strong, dignified performance, capturing Mandela’s determination and the pain he feels for the people of his country. Harris also gives a pretty good performance as his wife, Winnie. Though her time is somewhat limited in the film, she does get a chance to shine when it focuses more on her while her husband is in prison. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t have been in a better-structured film about this great man’s life.
The filmmakers may have had the best of intentions, but this just isn’t the way to go about telling the story of someone as important as Nelson Mandela. A film that focused more on his beginnings and his post-release career would have been a large step in the right direction, but even then, it’s a lot of ground to cover. You could easily make a film about either of those areas and have more than enough material to do so. However, when you try to cram it all into one movie, in addition to incorporating his imprisonment, the negative effects are bound to be noticed as we can see here. Performances can get you a long way, but when you reduce such important events to a mere montage, then justice is clearly not being done to them and the memory of Mandela’s years of struggle. 2/4 stars.
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