A long talk to freedom

Mandela; long walk to freedom (2013, directed Justin Chadwick)

By rights, Nelson Mandela should be an attractive character for Hollywood scriptwriters. His is an incredible story, in a picturesque country, well-known, uplifting and affirming. The most recent interpretation, based on Mandela’s autobiography and starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, therefore seems like it has a lot to live up to, to which the recent passing of its subject can only add. Long walk to freedom – the film – is like the book in serving as the public epitaph, for now, of one of the twentieth century’s greatest persons.

Surprisingly, a quick search of the movie portal IMDB reveals just 27 films linked to Mandela, of which the majority are documentaries. After high profile dramatisations such as Invictus (2009), and Goodbye Bafana (2007), Mandela has become a viable proposition for film-makers and actors, but still the floodgates have yet to open.

For this we should be thankful. It is easy to make a bad film of a true story, and often hard to make a good one. The Mandela story, like that of Gandhi or JFK before him, lends itself to drama easily enough, but perhaps less so to art. After all, to generate a really convincing moral from such a convoluted and caveated story as the life of a politician is nearly impossible, as many journalists proved in the wake of Mandela’s death.

Long walk to freedom eschews the approach of these two predecessor films. Goodbye Bafana, featuring a decent turn from Joseph Fiennes as the prison guard who abandons apartheid as a result of his relationship with Mandela, takes one relationship and makes it the embodiment of the hero’s civilising mission. In a similar vein, Invictus purports to show how Mandela’s adoption of a white nationalist past-time promoted reconciliation. The two films share both a narrow setting, and moral.

Instead, Chadwick and his screenwriter William Nicholas serve up a crash course on Mandela’s life. Staying true to the autobiography on which the film is based, they don’t stint on criticism of Mandela’s neglect of his family, or of Winnie Mandela’s descent into bitterness or sideline in cruel and unusual punishments.

Yet if the film is both fair and faithful, it badly wants for a theme. Elba does an excellent job of bringing out the young Mandela’s increasing enthusiasm for the struggle, his reflectiveness in later life and his stubborn willingness to defy his colleagues. However, the effect is that of a newsflash – soon digested and disposed of.

There is no really interesting talking point to come out of this film – for instance, whether Mandela was right to contradict the ANC at key moments in order to help the government of FW de Klerk de-escalate the situation in the country, or why violence was acceptable in the 1950s but not in the 1990s. We all know the ending, so why should we care for the journey?

There is of course a greater significance to the book itself, and perhaps the film will achieve some of Mandela’s ambitions to portray flaws that African leaders need not fear admitting, while showcasing the wisdom of his own journey from non-violence to violence and back again.

More likely, however, is that it will serve as closure on a quite unimaginable era. The story of apartheid is one that should be consigned to the ages, and if one is forced to listen to journalists bemoaning that there are no politicians of Mandela’s stature today, at least we can content ourselves by knowing that there are fewer regimes of quite such evil. This is Long walk to freedom‘s flaw. For a film that is emotional and at times enraging, the end result is not so much moving as pacifying.

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