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Walking Tall

mandellaMan behind myth explored in ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom—the latest biographical drama from Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl)—is in many ways as thoughtful and imposing as both its subject, the formidable Nelson Mandela, and its impressive star, Idris Elba.

The real-life Mandela passed away this past December, at the age of 95, lauded and eulogized the world over as an icon of peace, humility, forgiveness and cooperation. But Mandela was far more complicated than the stoic, sagacious, grandfatherly peacemaker so beloved by the world in his later years.

Chadwick's film (based on Mandela's own autobiography) is a manful attempt to explore the currents of deeply ingrained racism, political injustice, and corrupted human nature that turned an ordinary South African child into an uncompromising fighter for social justice and racial equality—at any cost.

The film opens with a burnished, hypnotic tribal manhood ritual for the young Mandela and other boys in his tiny village in a small rural province. By the mid-1940s, he's a successful Johannesburg lawyer (now played by Elba), winning civil cases even though white witnesses of the ruling minority class become incensed at being contradicted by a black man on the witness stand. He's more interested at first in his own career and charming the ladies at the neighborhood dance hall than in joining the African National Congress (ANC), a party devoted to the rights of the black majority.

But when a friend is beaten to death by white policemen for the crime of being black, Mandela becomes politicized, organizing massive, but peaceful protests and boycotts with the ANC. In 1948, “enforced segregation” (i.e. apartheid) becomes the law, and the Mandelas, like thousands of other black families, are removed from their homes and sequestered together in ex-urban townships. When a protest in Soweto leads to white cops shooting and killing scores of black demonstrators, and the ANC responds with acts of sabotage, blowing up (empty) military buildings, Mandela reaches the top of the Most Wanted list.

The story touches all the known incidents of Mandela's political life: his trial for conspiracy (and his famous speech professing himself “prepared to die” for the ideal of equality), his 27 years in prison, mostly spent in one tiny cell, where black inmates were subjected to petty indignities like being forced to wear short pants and getting only one (heavily censored) piece of mail per year. But the film is most effective in showing the toll Mandela's activism takes on his personal life.

Driven off not only by his dangerous politics, but by Mandela's extramarital affairs, his first wife leaves him and whisks away the children he rarely sees again. He's smitten with Winnie Madikizela (a vibrant Naomie Harris), a social worker. (“I heard you have a lot of girlfriends,” she teases him. “I'm different.”) After they marry in a gorgeous tribal ceremony in his mother's village (the African music throughout the film is terrific), she bears two daughters, but they're still small children when Mandela goes to prison, and he misses out on their growing up.

Winnie is also harassed and imprisoned during the intervening years, and it hardens her. Mandela is nearing 70, at the end of his confinement, when he collaborates with white president De Klerk to end apartheid, curtail violent protests, and establish democratic elections (which Mandela will later win, becoming the first black and democratically elected President of South Africa). But Winnie is out in the streets in battle fatigues preaching revenge. The greatest tragedy in the film is that after all they have both suffered, they can no longer comfort each other, and their marriage ends in divorce.

Lots of incidents feel rushed, despite the film's length, and Mandela's third marriage isn't even mentioned. But Elba's presence centers the story as his Mandela evolves and matures. And the film succeeds in portraying both Mandela and Winnie with human faults intact on their respective long walks to their destinies. With Mandela still so recently gone, the film also serves as a timely reminder of both the price, yet necessity of activism against injustice, and of the value of Mandela's ultimate message—forgiveness—in building a new and just society. 


MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM ★ ★ ★ (out of four)With Idris Elba and Naomie Harris. Written by William Nicholson. Directed by Justin Chadwick. A Weinstein Company release. Rated PG-13. 140 minutes.

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