It was always going to be a tall order to adequately cover the tumultuous events of the overthrow of apartheid and the transition to majority rule in South Africa in a little under 150 minutes, and so it proves with Mandela – Long Walk to
Freedom, the recently released film based largely on Mandela’s autobiography of the same name writes Andy Richards. A great deal of the story is skated over or ignored completely, of which more later. But that is not to say that the combined talents of director Justin Chadwick and the two leads, Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, have not produced a film of real power, which is at times is also deeply moving.
At the start of the film we find the young Mandela working as a lawyer in Johannesburg, at this time more interested in partying and pursuing women than politics, being approached by ANC activists to join the movement, and apparently needing some persuading. He is finally shown becoming involved through a bus boycott and in demonstrations against the Pass Laws. The film skates over this process of change and it would have been good to see how he became convinced to become part of the struggle.
Similarly, throughout the film much of the content of Mandela’s life and political career is shorn away. We know that there were ten defendants at the Rivonia trial, but we learn little of Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and the others. The film rather makes them extras in their own story. The role of the Communist Party and the trade union movement is not mentioned at all.
In many ways the most powerful part of the film is its depiction of the appalling treatment of Winnie Mandela, who was continually harassed by the apartheid regime, and the film does not shrink from showing the arbitrary arrests, solitary confinement and vicious assaults to which she was subjected. It is impossible not to be moved by the Winnie’s first brief visit to Nelson in prison six months after his sentence, and his meeting with his eldest daughter, who was not allowed to visit until she was 16.
The film also extensively covers Winnie’s personal and political break with Nelson after his release, albeit in somewhat simplistic terms. But one of the big messages of the film that, in many ways, life was actually harder for those left on the outside than those in prison.
Idris Elba makes a convincing Nelson Mandela and his respect for the person he is playing shines through. But the performance of the film is from Naomie Harris, whose work has been hailed by Winnie Mandela as the first truthful portrayal of her. But it has to be said again, aside from these two, no-one else in the film gets very much to do! Maybe one day someone will make a mini series to fill in all those gaps.