Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Review first published by Film4

Synopsis: Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) directs a sprawling biopic of individual change and national revolution, with Idris Elba assuming the role of Nelson Mandela.

Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is an homage in the true sense, with the first three letters of its title setting the theme. Opening in the Transkei hills at the moment young Nelson Mandela ritually becomes a man, the film follows his lifelong struggle to define and maintain that status in the most unjust of circumstances. As an adult lawyer in Johannesburg, Mandela (Idris Elba) is still addressed belittlingly as ‘boy’ by whites – and when he destroys his first marriage with infidelity and domestic violence, his mother must remind him of his ‘duties as a man’.

In response to the Sharpeville massacre, he will resort again to violence, this time political, and end up in prison – and apart from those he loves – for many decades. Eventually, with the country in turmoil, he must decide between the easily justified path of bloody revenge favoured by his beloved wife Winnie (Naomie Harris), and the course of peace and forgiveness. The rest is of course history, presented as the emergence of both statesman and man.

Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) fully exploits the cinematic opportunity to be found in courtroom drama, car chases and prison scenes, aided considerably by an impressive cast. It is, however, in the clash of values between Mandela and his wife, or between Mandela’s younger and older self, that this film stages the best dialectic on responses to racial injustice since Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) – duly referenced with a snatch of Public Enemy’s ‘Fight The Power’ on the soundtrack.

Adapted by playwright and screenwriter William Nicholson from Mandela’s 1994 autobiography of the same name, this bio-epic chronicles the revolutionary transformation of both an individual and a nation. By a strange twist of fate, news of Mandela’s death broke during the film’s London premiere, so that this life story has also turned out to be a cinematic obituary. Still, it’s a good one.

In A Nutshell: Is armed struggle or peaceful patience the better response to injustice? In a performance for the ages, Idris Elba’s Mandela embodies both sides of the argument.

Anton Bitel