Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (movie review)
The stylization of violence for artistic purposes has long been a contentious issue. Hearing Bob Marley’s War played over images of radical protests and bloody riots in South Africa makes for a powerful cinematic experience. The viewer’s eyes well up, and their emotions rise along with a sense of indignation at the stupidity of racism. While blacks and whites engage, we hear these eerie lines from the reggae song:
Until the philosophy which holds one race superior
And abandoned -
Everywhere is war -
Me say war say war.
This is one of the strongest sequences of the 2013 biopic Long Walk to Freedom, directed by Justin Chadwick and based on the autobiography of the same name, written by former South African president Nelson Mandela. Despite being nominated for three Golden Globes, the movie’s critical reception was lukewarm. According to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, it garnered an average score of 58% from critics. Audiences seem to have liked it a little better at 68%.
Idris Elba and Naomie Harris
Although traditional and uneven, with quite a few corny moments, the movie is a great way to introduce younger generations – unlikely to pick up a 700-page book – to the life and times of one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, or Madiba as he was affectionately known to his followers, is played to perfection by British actor Idris Elba – more recently heard as the voice of the tiger Shere Khan in Disney’s new adaptation of The Jungle Book. Elba conveys all the dignity, elegance, common sense, and pride of the revolutionary leader. His rich and nuanced performance is backed by Naomie Harris, who plays the tenacious Winnie, Mandela’s politicized and militant wife.
Violence as a means to an end
The movie addresses the always relevant and never resolved question of whether violence is the most effective way to fight the brutality of an unjust, discriminatory government system dominated by a privileged minority.
In his struggle against apartheid, Mandela seems to constantly waver between the use of violence and sabotage and the ideal of passive resistance and civil disobedience preached by the likes of Martin Luther King and Gandhi. By contrast, Winnie Mandela was a controversial activist. Alongside younger elements of South Africa’s rebel organizations, she deemed violence to be both legitimate and necessary to achieve freedom.
Winnie’s followers refer to her as the “Mother of the Nation” to this day. Others denounce her for a number of brutal crimes during the Apartheid years, including the kidnapping, torture, and murder of men, women, and even children.
The scenes that take place on Robben Island, where Mandela spent most of the 27 years of his imprisonment, are particularly haunting. In one moment, the film conveys the feeling of arriving at the cell in which he will most likely spend the rest of his life. Mandela looks out through the cell’s barred window, and in his eyes, we see all of the pain and desperation of his doomed future.
However, he soon discovers that his resolve and intelligence will be instrumental in filling the void. The discipline of long hours of study and physical exercise offset the routine of mind-numbing manual labor as he is forced to break stones with other prisoners.
The humiliations and savagery to which the inmates were subjected at the hands of prison wardens are also shown in vivid color. One sequence involves Mandela demanding long trousers as one his first requirements in jail. Let’s start with the small requests, he thinks. The black prisoners were given short trousers as part of the prison uniform as a way of making them uncomfortable, implying that negroes were nothing but boys, forever doomed to serve their white masters.
Through the long years of his imprisonment and negotiations with the oppressive government of South Africa, Mandela grew to understand the objectives and tools of political struggle, allowing him to hone a personal philosophy. His lesson was that real freedom – internal and external - can only be achieved through love and forgiveness, and he didn’t mince words voicing this to his people. It’s not a novel message, but one that bears repeating over and over again, in as many different languages and words as possible.
All in all, the movie is a powerful statement against the atrocities of racism.
On July 18th the world celebrates Mandela Day.