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

Almost three decades in prison transformed Mandela. He forswore the kind of bloody reckoning that some South Africans called for, eventually forgave his jailers and at one point, on national television, told his countrymen that if he could do so, then the people of South Africa could do no less.

The film works better as a personal biography of Mandela than as an account of the ANC and the movement that helped liberate him and build a new nation. And the ANC’s conscious decision to make Mandela the symbol of a larger human rights struggle is, for much of the film, largely unacknowledged. Mandela himself would be the first to admit that the struggle against apartheid in South Africa was far larger than one man, no matter his contributions or significance; many heroes of the struggle perished long before freedom came to their homeland.

In the end, though, seeing South Africa’s long walk to freedom through the narrative of Nelson Mandela’s life opens a window on the stories of the thousands gone—whose stories won’t ever make it to the screen—and offers enduring lessons to ensure that their sacrifice was not in vain.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.