Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom Was Also South Africa’s

The Mandela biopic tells South Africa’s history through the story of its first democratically elected president.

Idris Elba and Naomie Harris on the set of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Idris Elba and Naomie Harris on the set of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom Keith Bernstein/the Weinstein Co. via Getty Images

Nelson Mandela’s life contained enough drama, pathos and triumph to make several films based on his story, but the new biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is primarily concerned with revealing the man behind the legend. And it serves as an important reminder of the power of social movements in the face of political and economic terror.

Based on Mandela’s best-selling autobiography, the movie tells the epic history of an entire nation’s journey from apartheid and violence to freedom and multiracial democracy. At its best, the film adds depth to our understanding of Mandela, the icon of the anti-apartheid movement whose recent death at the age of 95 has triggered a global outpouring of reflection and remembrance. 

Efforts to frame Mandela’s historic legacy began almost immediately after his 1990 release from prison after 27 years. Both supporters and detractors tried to sort through his evolution from dissident leader of the African National Congress—which at one time both the South African and U.S. governments identified as terrorist—to South Africa’s first black president and first democratically elected head of state.

Now, with leading man Idris Elba’s voice-over narration, we get to glimpse the way in which the increasingly brutal apartheid regime helped radicalize Mandela, who came from a royal Xhosa family and started out as a young lawyer. We see the youthful Mandela as a charismatic womanizer who neglects his first wife and kids as he become engrossed in the anti-apartheid struggle after being recruited by ANC leader Walter Sisulu.

And at the heart of the film is the tragic love story between Nelson and his second wife, Winnie, played by Naomie Harris. Decades of separation, mutual bouts of incarceration, allegations against Winnie of infidelity and the murders of suspected informers would test their bond as political soul mates and life partners during the ANC’s bloody guerrilla struggle for liberation.

Making the love story between Nelson and Winnie a central part of the film brought forth a cinematic poetry that personalized the anti-apartheid struggle. Their long walks together, their picturesque wedding ceremony and the palpable chemistry between the actors makes these scenes emotionally absorbing.

But this way of telling the story also comes at a high cost. The complex political terrain is often flattened, leaving all but the most knowledgeable viewer unaware of the complexity of the ideological disputes between the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups and why, by the 1980s, white supremacy in South Africa was slowly dying.

Despite that flaw, the depiction of Mandela’s rise will still hold the audience’s attention over the film’s almost two-and-a-half-hour running time. The atrocities of the white-minority regime—most notably, the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre—are effectively staged. And Mandela’s 1963 trial for sabotage, after he goes underground and renounces nonviolence, is among Long Walk to Freedom’s most powerful scenes.

Its depiction of prison life on Robben Island highlights the brutality, loneliness and isolation that Mandela faced, with Elba turning in a disciplined performance that conveys the anger, sadness and disappointment of being ripped from his family. By the time Mandela’s daughter Zindzi visits him in prison, we get a sense of the personal loss extracted by his political convictions.