Adapting an autobiography
for film always carries a unique set of challenges: making sure to present the
subject as fully as the text dictates, but also stepping back for some
objectivity and complexity. When the person is Nelson Mandela- the face of the South
African Anti-Apartheid Movement- the task becomes even greater.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, and directed by British filmmaker Justin Chadwick, follows Mandela from childhood, to his resistance and leadership within the African National Congress (ANC), his imprisonment, and his long-awaited election as the first black president of South Africa at the close of Apartheid. To capture the extensive amount of action in this period, the film jumps around to different events and people, never spending too much time in one place. An early scene involving Mandela’s alleged adultery in his first marriage, and the family he left behind are given little attention before being overshadowed by later themes and characters.
While the film may have too quick of a timeline, its two stars keep it grounded. During the beginning of the film, it is difficult not to notice that you are looking at a very attractive portrayal of Mandela- the Idris Elba version. I worried that this would take attention away from the story, but it didn’t. Elba gradually transforms into Mandela. Early scenes of him dancing and flirting with women were fun but not as convincing. However, a later scene where he delivers what would become Mandela’s landmark statement during the Rivonia trial showcased his mastery of Mandela’s accent, voice, posture, and presence, culminating in one of the most powerful lines in the film: “It is an ideal for which I’m prepared to die.”
Naomie Harris is a Godsend as his wife and fellow activist Winnie Mandela, showing a delicate balance of tenderness, passion, and anger. While Elba definitely masters Mandela, Harris is endowed with a fascinating character arc in Winnie. On one of their first dates, Winnie passionately tells Nelson that she “hates” the white Apartheid regime, and they continue to flirt and kiss. Later, when Nelson is imprisoned, Winnie becomes the target of unjust government interrogation and physical abuse. That anger and hatred begin to manifest and grow inside of her. One title sequence reads: “After 16 months in solitary confinement” as she sits frozen in a dank cell, and we are introduced to a new Winnie Mandela. She yells “Amandla Ngawethu” with an earth-shattering force. Harris conveys this character with an incredible range, and we understand why and how Winnie chose a more militant path. Harris’s performance goes up notches through out the film, while is difficult to see that same kind of arc or foundation in Nelson.
In a way, Harris’ and Elba’s portrayals balance out one another, but we are aware that we are watching a great man become greater and nobler, but not always aware of internal conflict in him. Shot in contrasting tones of grays and yellows to match the decay of Robben Island prison juxtaposed with the warm hues of the rural South African landscape, Chadwick wants to convey the many worlds that Mandela experienced, but the treatment of the Apartheid regime was often reduced to scenes of massive shooting and bodies falling. While there is no denying the overwhelming violence during that time, a more distinct and affecting portrayal of the brutality during Apartheid-similar to the psychological toll shown in Winnie- would’ve really elevated the film, and given Mandela a stronger foundation.
Ultimately, this is a film anchored by its performances and reverence for the man it portrays. Harris stands out, adding an unorthodox dimension to the routine biopic format. In those ways, it should encourage viewers to reinvest in Mandela and the spirit and rebellion of the anti-Apartheid movement.