Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)
Director: Justin ChadwickEntertainment grade: B+
History grade: B+
This biopic, based on the late Nelson Mandela's autobiography, has turned out to be almost spookily well-timed: its subject's death was announced during its London premiere on 6 December. The movie stars the British actor Idris Elba, who looks nothing like the man he portrays. Cinema has moved on since the days when casting agents thought Laurence Olivier could pass as Sudanese. Elba is at least of recent African origin, though his Ghanaian and Sierra Leonean roots place him thousands of miles from Mandela's Xhosa homeland, and African populations are the most genetically diverse of any continent's. Nonetheless, he is a terrific actor, and blessed with an appropriately powerful physical presence. The young Mandela cut an imposing figure: more than six feet tall, a boxer, hotshot lawyer, and leader of a violent armed struggle. He was a tougher guy than Stringer Bell or John Luther, and – to judge by many stories – very nearly as appealing to the ladies. Elba has this down.
Since Mandela's death last year, some of his supporters have criticised the right wing in the west for calling him and the African National Congress "terrorists", while others have claimed his "terrorism" was a vital part of his struggle. The word "terrorism" is emotive - and therefore problematic - for historians. There isn't much difference between a "freedom fighter" and a "terrorist", except that we think the former is justified in blowing stuff up and the latter isn't, and that's the sort of subjective judgment historians aren't supposed to make. Mandela made no secret of the fact that he co-founded and led Umkhonto we Sizwe, a paramilitary organisation aligned with the African National Congress and the South African communist party. It blew quite a lot of stuff up, as this film shows.
William Nicholson's intelligent screenplay deals admirably with this tricky material, presenting anti-apartheid violence in context of the constant, brutal violence the white supremacist regime was meting out to black South Africans. "For 50 years we have been talking peace and nonviolence," says Mandela in the film, explaining his move to arms. "As violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force," said the real Mandela in his speech at the Rivonia trial in 1963. Thankfully, the film does not sentimentalise Mandela as the world's cuddly old grandfather. At the same time, it shows you why he felt pushed to radicalism by the appalling regime he was up against. High historical marks for achieving this balance.
Mandela's passionate, troubled relationship with his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (Naomie Harris), is at the heart of the story. Winnie's enthusiasm for violence, even in the internecine struggle between anti-apartheid activists, is not glossed over, and nor is her apparent enthusiasm for "necklacing" – a sadistic method of execution in which the victim is bound with a rubber tyre, doused with petrol and burned to death. "I am terribly brutalised inside," the real Winnie admitted to the BBC in 1986. "I know my soul is scarred. But what has happened is that [it] hasn't brutalised me to an extent of being consumed in hate." The film could be accused of simplifying this complicated woman, but it's already two and a half hours long and it isn't really about her. Budding film-makers, take note: she remains a heroine to some and a villain to others, and either way is interesting enough to make great material for a biopic of her own.
While the political and historical efforts of this film are impressive, it does underplay one crucial element of Mandela's personality: his wit. A classic example came in 1997, when journalists asked him how he felt on meeting the Spice Girls. "I don't want to be emotional," deadpanned the man who had endured 27 years of imprisonment, ended apartheid, won South Africa's first real democratic election and ultimately become the most revered statesman on earth, "but this is one of the greatest moments of my life."
Overall, this film does an eminently credible job until, in a disastrous misstep, it rolls the credits – and ends with a naff new song by U2. Giving the showboating multimillionaire pop star Bono – a man who could serve as the poster boy for what Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole calls the "White Saviour Industrial Complex" – the last word on Nelson Mandela is simply unconscionable. Tempting as it may be to downgrade the film's rating for this, that would be unfair on everyone else involved. If only they'd gone with Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, the Xhosa hymn that became the anthem of the anti-apartheid movement. Though that was memorably used in another film about the struggle: Steve Biko biopic Cry Freedom. Or how about something by the Spice Girls? At least that might have made the real Mandela laugh.
A thoughtful, compelling and moving account of Mandela's life that tells you what he wants, what he really, really wants – at least until the very last moment.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © South Africa The Good News