Film Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

A classic biopic in both form and function, this stirring film does what they all should do: It captures the inner life of its life story.

When the personage at the center of a major mainstream film is a man of such genuinely heroic stature as Nelson Mandela, the danger is always that he’ll get tidied up, seen only from his best side, where none of his warts show. The other danger is that, while cataloguing the man’s accomplishments, the filmmakers will short-shrift the man behind the legend, that they won’t show him to be more (and less) than his public self, that they won’t ever really bring him to vital life onscreen. That’s why it is a great pleasure to report that this retelling of the Nelson and Winnie Mandela story falls into neither of these ruts. It is balanced, full-bodied, heartfelt. Portraying the Mandelas as all-too-human, it is all the more moving during those moments when they soar.

Early on, Nelson Mandela (vibrantly embodied by Idris Elba) is nobody’s hero, and the champion of no cause. He’s an ambitious, charismatic, lustily womanizing Johannesburg lawyer who steers clear of activist attempts to involve him in the struggle against a repressive South African government. But that begins to change when one friend too many gets beaten to death in police custody. Then Nelson is willing to sit down with members of the African National Congress, who have seen in him the makings of a natural leader. In turn, Mandela sees the sizeable following this movement already has on the streets. As the first of many crowd scenes swells across the screen, Mandela becomes a man inspired. He has a cause.

In mere minutes of running time, Mandela is leading the marches and commanding the podium, in a kind of elongated montage that is seamlessly edited to convey the passage of untold weeks. Indeed, the whole film adheres to this narrative principle, segueing months, then years ahead, pausing at most of the key historical moments, and interspersing enough of the more intimate interludes that allow Mandela and his family to become people we can deeply care about and feel for.

It is during some of those interludes that we see Nelson in a less than flattering light, whether cheating on his wife Evelyn (Terry Pheto) with a gorgeous groupie or throwing an overwought Evelyn to the floor during a heated confrontation. It is also during these interludes that Nelson meets and romances spirited social worker Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harrris), whom he calls “the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.” Given whom we’ve seen him see, that is high praise indeed.

But Winnie Mandela is more than just another pretty face in Nelson’s life, more even than a loyal helpmate who stands at the side of her increasingly famous man, as he leads the ANC in Gandhi-style peaceful resistance, and later into fire-bombing retaliation, after the police start suppressing amassed protestors by shooting into their midst. But it’s after Nelson is arrested, convicted and imprisoned that Winnie truly comes to the forefront of this film—suffering random police searches, protesting and getting herself arrested, agonizing as she is separated from her children, and then enduring her own prison sentence, for repeated acts of insurgence. This is where Harris earns however many award nominations she has coming her way. It should be many.

From the moment she arrives onscreen, Harris’ Winnie is a force, whether making out with Nelson in the tall grass or hurling fiery exhortations in front of crowds of followers. As the struggle for freedom grows more violent, as the years without Nelson add up, as Winnie gets yanked in and out of imprisonment, Harris’ performance only builds in intensity. She is fierce, formidable, unrelenting. And as her long fight winds down, with so much politically achieved and so much personally sacrificed, the fury dies down to a dark smolder. Permanently radicalized, but nudged to the side by the “pardoned” Nelson’s platform of peaceful negotiation to end white minority rule, Harris’ Winnie has the look of a rebel whose cause has been usurped.

If Elba’s portrayal is defined by the way he modulates the language of his large, powerful body (during his time in prison, he goes from strong, strapping defiance to beaten-down, stoic endurance), Harris says it all with her eyes. The eyes alone give a great performance. The rest of what she does to command every scene she’s in is a beautiful bonus.

Next to Nelson and Winnie, every other character in the film seems, well, a little less than fleshed out. This is one of the sacrifices that filmmakers make when they try to span a half-century in the very full lives of two remarkable people in two-and-a-half hours. To give everyone (including Nelson and Winnie) their due would take a TV miniseries along the lines of Roots or The Winds of War. Still, Terry Pheto has her empathetic moments as Evelyn Mandela, and Lindiwe Mashikiza has a terrific couple of scenes as younger Mandela daughter Zindzi—one during a prison visit to Nelson, and the other when Zindzi takes the stage in front of a cheering crowd and gives a whole new jolt to the battle cry “Fight.” Suffice it to say that from now on, when the name Mandela comes up, this reviewer will not just be thinking of Nelson and Winnie.

In the film’s concluding section, apartheid inevitably ends, and Nelson and Winnie become estranged, even as Nelson emerges as the most logical candidate to lead South Africa’s riot-torn populace into a new era. All this, too, is artfully summarized, and yet made memorable by vivid key moments: from director Justin Chadwick’s strikingly framed crowd scenes as the masses surge to greet a newly freed Nelson, to the interludes behind closed doors, where Nelson and Winnie sadly agree that they cannot recapture who they once were or what they once had. Somewhere in the middle of all that is a singularly bittersweet scene in which Nelson and Winnie reunite, finally able to touch each other for the first time in decades. It comes in the form of an embrace, achingly tentative, exquisitely tender, as if each were afraid the other would break. After all, they both almost did.

This is the story of how they didn’t. It is the story of how they soared.