There are many films that have been inspired by, based on or set adjacent to Nelson Mandela’s long and particularly extraordinary life. Shake the story of his time as a freedom fighter, a political prisoner or a president, and a dozen others fall into the margins. You could dramatize any of them. Not that it’d be easy. The depictions got trickier as his global saintliness proliferated, and now that he has succumbed to illness it’s harder still. But the long list of movie Mandelas will lengthen, I’m sure. It’s odd to think that Danny Glover’s portrayal, the first, in HBO’s Mandela from 1987, was significant because it aired during his incarceration. Idris Elba’s, the most recent, is significant because as dignitaries assembled for the royal premiere of Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela himself passed away in his Johannesburg home.
It was sheer chance that Justin Chadwick’s biopic became an obituary, but even with that remarkable twist of fate attached to it Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is still just a biopic. It’s a rigid, stifling genre. How do you encompass an entire life in a neat three-act structure? Isn’t there something inherently reductive about that? There is, of course. That’s why they almost always play like Greatest Hits compilations. Milestones are surmounted briskly and sped away from. Most of the more intimate ructions are swept aside. At almost two-and-a-half hours, this isn’t a short movie, but it still feels as though it’s playing on fast-forward.
That the implications of Mandela’s life seem too far-reaching to be bookended by opening and closing credits is only part of the problem. Long Walk to Freedom is also a monument to Mandela, one clearly built with respect, but devoid of all the blemishes and rougher edges that make him so significant. It doubles down on his totemic tolerance and temperance and wisdom, but barely hints at where that all comes from. Elba is playing stoic all the way through because he’s never required to play anything else. The filmmaking is doing the heavy lifting for him. The score swells whenever Mandela does anything, even if he isn’t doing anything at all. They play all the hits, including Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, which is as politically nuanced as the movie gets. There’s only one kind of freedom fight here.
The screenplay, adapted by William Nicholson from Mandela’s own autobiography, favours a clear, chronological narrative line. We get the flashbacks to Mandela’s war-painted childhood; his life as an angry, brash trial lawyer and amateur boxer. These portions are easily the movie’s strongest. They have the good sense to dip a toe into the murky waters of Mandela’s philandering, domestic abuse and neglectful parenting. A scene in which, as a lawyer, he cross-examines a white woman who has accused a black woman of theft, says more about the era’s politics than anything else you’ll find in the movie. Even the scenes set amid the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre don’t have the same kind of potency as that white woman being so shocked and offended by an educated black man speaking to her like an equal that she’s unable to continue with the trial.
Mandela is recruited by the African National Congress and galvanised by the injustice of apartheid; the unnecessary death of a drunken friend and the 69 others killed at Sharpeville by the local police force. His radical activism and embracing of armed resistance feel refreshingly at-odds with the film’s overall conservatism. We know where it’s all going, but through the use of authentic archive footage and Mandela’s own lilting voice-over, Chadwick lends the progression a bit of dynamism. The story is of a breadth usually shied away from, and perhaps for good reason. The sense of boxes being checked is never quite overcome.
Idris Elba doesn’t take too many actorly chances here, but his presence lends a new physical component to Mandela. He’s big and solidly-built and handsome. Mandela is mostly known for his humanity rather than his humanness, but Elba’s physique externalises his inner-strength. The performance is sharply observed, but the depth of character isn’t being performed so much as displayed. Nicholson’s pace is uncompromising; Chadwick’s tone often reverential. But neither manages to quite plane away the roughness that Elba carries into the role.
Occasionally Long Walk to Freedom peels back the sentimentality. Mandela’s famous speech from the dock at Pretoria in which he shares his dream for a free, democratic South Africa, feels freer for that. He’s tried alongside three of his compatriots on charges of trying to overthrow the government, and at 44 years of age is sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island in lieu of the death penalty. He’s released at 71. The movie starts to really lose itself here. Chadwick is eager to stitch Mandela’s achievements into the fabric of history, but never stops to properly examine what those achievements cost him and the people he cared about.
Long Walk to Freedom is momentarily audacious enough to touch on how Nelson’s imprisonment radicalised Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris). Her transition from long-suffering and devoted spouse to murderous warlord is only suggested, though, never properly depicted. The movie obviously recognises that Winnie’s actions at the forefront of activism are the most compelling thing about her, but lacks the conviction to condemn or condone them. It’s difficult (perhaps impossible) to find any kind of political equilibrium between these two. But Chadwick isn’t even looking for it. He instead foregrounds Nelson’s campaign on the Island for black prisoners to be allowed long trousers, leaving Winnie’s contentious, persistent role in the war against apartheid frustratingly diluted. Nelson summarises thusly: “What they did to Winnie is their only victory over me.”
Long Walk to Freedom is capable and respectable. It’s occasionally smart. But a lot of it is boilerplate. It takes an incredibly well-documented life and doesn’t probe beyond what you’ve already seen, heard or read about. You’d think a man as prolific and influential as Nelson Mandela deserves a movie more willing to explore his life completely, and you’d be right. This isn’t it. I guess we’ll wait for the next one.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.