I would like to have said this new film, based on the book by the late Nelson Mandela, is an excellent tribute to the former South African and African National Congress President.
But it misses the mark, and is only a good film that tries hard to capture the amazing life of Madiba.
Mandela, was was born in 1918 and who died on Thursday, December 5, 2013 at the age of 97, lived a life so unlike any other. The film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, tells the story of his life, which began as a young boy running around in the fields of Africa, his becoming a lawyer in his 20s, his coming of age and into the world of politics in Johannesburg in 1942, meeting and divorcing his first wife Evelyn, then meeting a woman who could match his every step (Winnie), his 27 years in prison, including 18 in Robben Island. It then tells about his triumphant release from prison in 1991, to being elected President of South Africa in 1994. This is a lot for any movie to cover, but it is just too much, and thereby dilutes the amazing and powerful story of Mandela.
Idris Elba is Mandela, who plays him as a young man in his twenties and then as a man in his 90s. Elba as the younger Mandela looks a bit too old to be playing someone that young, with so much energy and so much passion. He gets more believable and into character once the story kicks in as Mandela rises to power in the ANC as they attempt to get the South African government to get rid of apartheid. Winnie, played by a spectacular Naomie Harris, stands by his side the whole time, trying to maintain a house while raising two girls, yet the fire for their struggle within them flames. Through the ANC training camps and safehouses, leading the ANC to a path of violence, blowing up buildings and rampaging through the streets, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is powerful when it tells of these early days in Mandela's life. There is also amazing real footage of some of the uprisings that took place during that time, with many of the protestors getting killed in the process. Compelling stuff.
It was on May 27, 1963 that Mandela first set foot on Robben Island, as prisoner 46664, which would his home for the next 18 years, in a small prison cell. Along with other political prisoners, they talked and debated and tried to survive one day at a time. In the film, we see Mandela protesting at having to wear shorts, he demands to have a pair of trousers, and demands the same for the rest of the prisoners, which they all receive, three years later. This just goes to show that he demanded respect, even in jail. In one emotional scene in the film, one of his daughters comes to visit him in jail, after not having seen each other in over ten years.
Mandela was not the only one who was imprisoned. Winnie was also taken away to prison for her political activity, and with very emotional and brutal scenes, we see Harris as Winnie get beaten up and tortured in prison, sprawled naked in a cold prison cell. Brutal stuff, and Harris is phenomenal in these scenes.
On February 11, 1990, Mandela walked out of prison and became a free man. And then a few years later, he become the first black President of South Africa. These moments in Mandela's life are also two very important moments in history, yet in the film we don't get swept, caught up, or emotional when it happen. It is all glossed over very quickly. A movie this big with an even bigger story to tell forgets to make these two moments emotional and unforgettable. We wait for the next big moment, the next huge emotional scene, but it never comes. So this goes back to the question: How do you tell a story in a movie of one of the greatest men who has ever lived?
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom took 15 years to get to the big screen. The writer, William Nicholson, started writing Mandela's story in 1997, with 33 drafts, and attempted every single way to tell this story. During this time, he met almost every famous black actor for this film, some got too old to play the part of the younger Mandela, but in the end it was just too hard to nail down a big star, according to Nicholson, so Elba was chosen. Elba, not a very big star when filming commenced, but well-known thanks to his television work in The Wire, does an admirable job as the greatest man in the last century. It is not Elba's fault that the script tries to tell a story which was 630 pages in book form. It was a huge challenge for Elba to take this role.
But Harris, as Winnie, is undeniably the winner in the acting sweepstakes in this film. Her political speeches, her love for her husband and children, and her imprisonment would make for another movie in itself.
In the beginning of the film, Mandela says, "I wanted to make my family proud of me". Well, he has made the whole world proud of him.