‘Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom’ Is An Unsentimental But Flawed Portrait Of Nelson Mandela


When former South African president Nelson Mandela died earlier this year, it was crude but inevitable that one of the subjects of speculation would involve the fate of the latest movie to examine his life. Some of Mandela’s family were attending a screening of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, starring Idris Elba as Mandela himself, and Naomie Harris as his second wife, Winnie Madikizela, when they received news of his death. Their performances are excellent. And the film, directed by Justin Chadwick, and adapted by William Nicholson from Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, respects Mandela’s own wishes and throws off the sappy, hagiographic conventions of such biopics, and is a much better movie for it. But ultimately, Mandela’s life and his times are too big to fit comfortably in a single movie–Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is a reminder that sequels shouldn’t only be for fictional superheroes.

Mandela does one thing that’s unusual for movies about civil and human rights movies: it effectively captures the physical courage required to simply participate in civil society when even speech is punishable by violence. In one remarkable sequence, Mandela breaks into a run to bolster his own courage and shoulders past the guards at a whites-only train station. It’s the moment in the film when it’s clear why Elba was cast–beyond the physical resemblance, he has a remarkable physicality and presence. You can see how the physical strength that comes from a country childhood and a boxer’s training could make it easier to face down the individual white men charged with enforcing apartheid. And when Mandela arrives at his cell on Robben Island, his tiny cell seems even more constricting that it would if its occupant possessed a less visibly powerful body.

It’s not just Elba’s physical presence that the movie relies on. Mandela has a nice sense of scale in portraying the crowds protesting Mandela’s trial for sabotage, and later, in capturing the lines of black South Africans turned out before dawn to vote.

The repeated salutes that he and Winnie use to rally crowds have radically different meanings depending on their contexts. It’s invigorating when Mandela use it to rally a crowd; heartbreaking to see Winnie give it after the police make her choose between leaving her daughter to others’ care and attending her husband’s trial; despairing to see Mandela try to rally his fellow prisoners on Robben Island and to get no response; and frightening to see Winnie whip up the young men who became her constituency while her husband was in prison, telling them “we have our hands. We have tires and matches. We know the informers. We know the traitors. And we know what to do with them.”

But Mandela has little sense of how to convey the changing political environment on Robben Island or in South Africa at large. In one scene, we might learn that Mandela, who was told on his imprisonment that “Indians get trousers. Indians get socks. Boys get shorts,” has petitioned for long pants. Several scenes later, we see him get his clothes, joking to Ahmed Kathedra, “Kathy, you are no longer the daddy!” But there’s no explanation of how Mandela and his comrades won this, or any of their other small battles in prison. The movie’s so eager to pile up developments that, for a film that professes to be interested in Mandela’s tactics, it has a tendency to skate over the actual work it takes to accrue power and to learn how to deploy it responsibly.

Similarly, during Mandela’s imprisonment, we get two long montages of protests and violence in South Africa, with little contextual explanation of these developments. Mandela would have done better to spend some time explicating the sanctions placed on the apartheid regime, and the voluntary boycotts and divestment movements that all worked together to weaken South Africa’s economy. And though the montages include images of student protestors, and a young man on Robben Island dismisses Mandela and his comrades as moderate and out of touch, the movie should have explained the student strike and the increasing radicalization of young South Africans. Such context would have clarified the split between the Mandelas and the challenges Mandela faced during the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. And finally, more efficient editing might have given Mandela an opportunity to at least acknowledge the existence of the Inkatha Freedom Party, a right-wing, collaborationist party whose rivalry with the ANC was another source of violence.

I realize this is a lot to ask of a single movie, and Mandela might have been better-served as a two-part series, like Carlos, which followed the life of Carlos the Jackal, or Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, about the French criminal. But a movie that was more willing to explain the complexities of South African politics would have sharpened its characters’ motivations and its portrait of the long arc of the country’s social and political evolution. Like many movement movies, Mandela‘s characters speak in broad generalities its audience can relate to even if they’re unfamiliar with given struggle. But given how adept the movie can sometimes be at giving its characters specific and human dialogue in their personal interactions, I wish Mandela gave them the context to speak specifically about politics.

It’s no mistake that the marriage between Nelson and Winnie Mandela is the place where Mandela is at its strongest–Mandela may even be a better movie than it is about the latter.

Mandela is unsparing in its portrait of Mandela’s marriage to his first wife, Evelyn. Though in their courtship, he’s flirtatious and fun, he’s quick to abandon her for the movement, to mock Evelyn’s belief in religion, to cheat on her, and even to physically abuse her during an argument. “You care about all the children of South Africa except your own,” she tells him bitterly, leaving Nelson during his first stint in prison.

His relationship with Winnie promises to be different–she first spots him at an anti-apartheid rally–but the things that will lead to its dissolution are present almost from the beginning. “I heard you have a lot of girlfriends,” Winnie tells Nelson on an early date, eager to establish guidelines that will place her first in his heart, and unable to imagine the scale of the fight that will divide them. “I’m different.” And Nelson’s distraction is present even in his oblique proposal to Winnie. “I was thinking. I know a good dressmaker,” he tells her. “A very good value. Maybe you should go see her.” Elba and Harris have tremendous romantic and sexual chemistry (given Harris’ role in the Bond franchise, Mandela should be an entry for the case that Elba would make a tremendous Bond). Their obvious joy and attraction to each other during their wedding in Mandela’s homeland, makes everything that follows even sadder.

The most interesting idea advanced in Mandela is that while Mandela’s long imprisonment on Robben Island and on the mainland stole almost three decades of his life from him, his incarceration not only made him a powerful symbol, but protected him from what he might have become. Robben Island is absolutely presented as unpleasant, a place full of hard labor, verbal and psychological abuse from the guards, and profound isolation. But while inside, Mandela studies, grows tomatoes, and deepens his bond with his co-defendants. His bond with one of his guards, over time, earns him increasingly respectful treatment.

Life on the outside for Winnie, by contrast, comes across as even more grinding and humiliating. While Nelson is awaiting trial, she is fired from a job and has to deal with constant visits from the police. After he is incarcerated, her altercations with the cops who invade and disrupt her home become more violent. She’s placed under a banning order and the harassment increases. “They like to have little chats with me,” Winnie explains her frequent arrests to Nelson during a visit to Robben Island. “Usually they wait until just before the girls get back from school, so they find an empty house.” Ultimately, she spends sixteen months in solitary confinement, subject to worse housing conditions than her husband, and to sexually assaultive strip searches. When she’s released from prison, Winnie tells a crowd of her supporters “I was very young when I married Nelson. I’m not young anymore. And I’m not afraid anymore.”

For Nelson, being removed from the anti-apartheid struggle means being denied an opportunity to contribute to his country’s future. But it also protects him from being involved in the worst excesses of that struggle, and from experiencing the full exercise of the apartheid state’s cruelty. Winnie has to bear that cruelty, and she breaks under the strain. While visiting Nelson in prison, Winnie explains that she copes “By hating them. Don’t tell me it’s wrong,” she cuts off her husband. “It keeps me strong.” In prison, Nelson’s hate would have destroyed no one and nothing but himself. In the free world, Winnie may have few freedoms, and one of the things remaining to her is to unleash that hate.

And when the couple is reconciled outside of prison, Mandela manages to show great sympathy to Winnie as their marriage dissolves, even as it clearly condemns her role in the violence that is tearing their country apart. “They fear us, Nelson. They fear me,” Winnie tells her husband as he slowly reemerges into the free world. “They think you’re old and tired. Make them fear you, too.” Fear has been the only power that Winnie has available to her, and it’s difficult for her to conceive that a regime that abused her so badly might grant her husband authority on different terms.

She flinches first from his touch, telling him “It’s just been so long,” and leaving unspoken the sexual abuse she suffered in prison. And later, Winnie, who is not involved in the CODESA negotiations, insists on flouting her power in the streets, even as it undermines her husband, unwilling to fade agreeably into useful invisibility. “Are you ashamed to greet me in front of our people?” Winnie goads Nelson when he asks to speak to her privately after a rally. “I am angry. You are angry. But you must show loyalty,” he tells her. “Loyalty, Winnie Mandela. Loyalty.”

If he’d stopped there, we might have sided purely with Mandela in the scene. But he pivots, telling her “I have decided it would be better if I live in my own home. Better for the cause. Better for me.” The separation might be the act of a statesman. And it’s certainly an expression of disgust at Winnie’s tactics. But there’s something breathtakingly callous in Mandela’s demand for political loyalty at the moment that he leaves the wife who suffered enormously for the decades of loyalty she’s given him already.

Mandela is correct that the marriage was doomed and that Winnie is an enormous political and moral liability. But we still feel the way his words might leave Winnie breathless with pain. And we feel that blow again in Mandel’s public announcement of their separation, a combination of magnanimity and condescension: “I will personally never regret the life we tried to share together. I part from her with no recriminations. I hope that you can all appreciate the pain that I have gone through.”

In private, he takes responsibility for his actions. “What I have done to my wife,” Mandela reflects,”is their only victory over me.” It’s a genuinely monumental loss, both for the Mandelas personally, and in Winnie Mandela’s body county. Mandela‘s greatest virtue is its willingness to do that accounting, and to acknowledge that great men often have failures to accompany their victories.