Directed by Justin Chadwick, with screenplay by William Nicholson based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” covers quite a lot of territory, beginning in 1942 Johannesburg. We meet Mandela (Idris Elba) in his early days as a self-confident, charismatic lawyer. Rather than joining a movement, he seems to feel more at home defending the rights of the individual, one case at a time. He’s a bit of a smooth-talker and definitely a ladies’ man. During this portion of his life, he marries Evelyn (Terry Pheto), who would become the first of his three wives. With ever frequent get-togethers with members of the African National Congress (ANC), he becomes more politicized. Repeated trips away from home take a toll on his marriage, which eventually dissolves. He meets and marries Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris), who appears to be more his intellectual equal and is as politically minded as he is. As the South African apartheid policy becomes increasingly severe and harsh…in Mandela’s words, “makes war on its own people,” Mandela becomes more outspoken and participates in less peaceful activities. In 1961 he is arrested and jailed and ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment. After much behind the scenes negotiations during the latter portion of his imprisonment, he is finally released in 1990. He is ultimately elected president of South Africa in 1994. While Mandela is in prison, Winnie Mandela is arrested in 1969, spending eighteen months in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison. That time in prison, plus the burden of taking care of the family while Nelson is imprisoned, militarizes Winnie. When Nelson is released from prison, the two no longer agree politically and separate.
As Mandela, Idris Elba’s performance goes a long way in showing us the charm and later the political savvy of the man as well as his seemingly forgiving nature. What’s missing from his performance is not his fault; what’s in the script is largely superficial and doesn’t go beneath the surface to give us an understanding of his thinking. Maybe that’s not possible, but it makes the film feel as if it’s missing something.
Naomie Harris’ Winnie is a force of nature. Her portrayal of the cruelty she received in prison is gut-wrenching. When she screams “Where are my children?” it’s horrific and is eerily reminiscent of the separation of mother and child in an early scene of “12 Years a Slave.” Winnie is more outspoken than Nelson when they are together and her life in prison only serves to harden her.
One can appreciate that after the first few years, it is difficult to show prison life and keep the viewer interested. Unless something new happens, prison time becomes fairly routine. So it is easy to understand (and possibly empathize with) the sarcasm and possible disgust newer, younger inmates have for Mandela and his other ANC-related prisoners as we watch them tend to the prison gardens, especially when juxtaposed against the degradations and beatings that Winnie is enduring.
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” does an outstanding job in illustrating the cruelties and indignities associated with apartheid. Although hard to watch, those scenes are some of the film’s best. It also presents a well-rounded picture of Mandela…warts and all…not the saintly portrayal one might expect. But the scenes regarding Winnie, during and after her imprisonment, are the most compelling. I admit, I knew little about Nelson Mandela other than what I’ve gleaned from news reports in recent years, so certainly this film was informative in providing more information. But I knew nothing about Winnie. Following the film, she was the one about whom I wanted to learn a good deal more. When we care more about Winnie than we do Nelson, that is a problem. In that regard, “Mandela: Long Road to Freedom” loses focus and is not the great movie it could be. That film is yet to come.