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.
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.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.