Long Walk humanises Mandela, but do we lose sight of the man who was Madiba?

The timing could not have been more poignant: as South African president Jacob Zuma announced to the world that Nelson Mandela, the father of his nation, had breathed his last, Mandela’s daughters, Zenani…

Icon and reality: Nelson and Winnie Mandela as seen on screen. Production Companies Videovision Entertainment Distant Horizon Origin Pictures (in association with) Pathé

The timing could not have been more poignant: as South African president Jacob Zuma announced to the world that Nelson Mandela, the father of his nation, had breathed his last, Mandela’s daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, were sitting alongside British royalty and the film’s stars, Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, in the Odeon Cinema Leicester Square at the UK premier of his biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, named after the former South African president’s 1995 memoir, serves up a series of perfectly punctuated snapshots of the late stateman’s life. But the film lacks the kind of psychological depth befitting a man who was larger than life. Swinging between the political and the personal, the film tries to cover too much ground in less than three hours. As a result, it titillates without fully satisfying and leaves the viewer wondering who the real Mandela was – and if a “real” Mandela only exists in the popular imagination.

But, despite its fault-lines, the film humanises Mandela – gently prying him from the pedestal that we all placed him on. It illustrates the complex, binary faces of the man, without fully reconciling any of them. We are reminded that Mandela was both husband and philanderer; terrorist and freedom fighter; deeply devoted father and absent parent; ANC loyalist and traitor; lawyer and defendant, prisoner and liberator of a nation (interestingly, Mandela was also both health nut and smoker). Despite looking nothing like Mandela, Elba mimics his gait and voice so hauntingly he almost rivals Denzel Washington’s portrayal of slain Nation of Islam leader, Malcolm X.

Reluctant hero

When it comes to capturing the breadth of Mandela’s epic political career, Long Walk to Freedom reminds us he was essentially a man reluctantly catapulted into the limelight by African National Congress (ANC) stalwart, the late Walter Sisulu. It was Sisulu who realised that the ANC needed a figurehead that they could mould into a symbol of hope for those who had lost all hope. Mandela might have been destined for greatness because of his royal Xhosa lineage, yes, but he became what Malcolm Gladwell has termed an “outlier” because he responded favourably to a peculiar series of opportunities and encounters.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom effectively portrays how Mandela’s life prison sentence may have been the best outcome for South Africa, the probable alternative being assassination – or martyrdom – with unpredictable consequences for peace. The film also illustrates how Mandela’s closed-door negotiations with the Nationalists – in which he broke ranks with his ANC comrades – would change South Africa’s historical trajectory forever.

At the backdrop of the film is South Africa’s legacy of physical and structural violence at the hands of the apartheid regime. From the Sharpeville massacre, to the ANC’s armed struggle, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, as it was called, or – Spear of the Nation), to the Soweto uprisings, apartheid is personified in the film for its arbitrary inhumanity. Mandela, Sisulu, and their comrades are forced to strip naked in an open square on Robben Island just for the sheer kicks of their prison guards. And Mandela’s prison number, 46664, has the middle three digits of the devil. But Mandela’s humour and humanity shine through in the film. From cracking jokes with Robben Island prison guards to asking intimate details about his captors’ families, Elba, as Mandela, says: “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”

There is a looming reminder in the film that South Africa remains a battered and bruised nation still struggling to define itself in the 21st century amid ANC bickering, white flight and fear, and black angst. In the middle of the film there is a stark face-off between young and old, in which post-Soweto activists meet an elderly Mandela in a gardener’s hat picking tomatoes. One of the young men insinuates that Mandela is a sell-out and that the ANC is obsolete. Counting off on his fingers, Mandela reminds the young men that while they may be powerful as individuals, organised by the ANC they are unstoppable. To illustrate this he curls those fingers into a fist. This scene is a stark reminder of how the ANC has since slowly strayed from the ideals of its founding fathers: from ANC youth leader Julius Malema’s anti-white rhetoric, to the AIDS denialism of Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki to the conspicuous opulence and wealth of the current ANC president, Jacob Zuma, who was booed at Madiba’s memorial service.

The man behind Madiba

Beyond the political, the film’s power lies in its portrayal of Mandela’s personal life, particularly his relationship with Winnie Madikizela. We are reminded that the couple had only been married for four years and had two young daughters, when Mandela was sent to Robben Island. As their love affair blossoms in the bubble of a fairy tale in the film, their separation is just as dramatic. While Mandela softens in prison, Madikizela hardens in the real world. Although there is an attempt to humanise Winnie Mandela, a woman whose full story has yet to be told, Harris transforms in the film from a 20-something groupie-like bride of an up-and-coming icon to a middle-aged militant radical and “angry black woman”. Her portrayal of Winnie reminds us that Madikizela too was a fighter, a trouble-maker, having survived 16 months in solitary confinement, and imprisoned on countless occasions. She takes on Mandela’s struggle as her own, yet the overarching narrative violently performs a ritual of erasure, leaving Winnie’s story slightly obscured.

The film’s cinematography is stunning, moving from the rolling hills of Qunu, Mandela’s ancestral village, to the searing blue Cape Town horizon overlooking Table Mountain, to the dank, drabness of the Robben Island prison. The film begins with a voiceover by Elba narrating a flashback to Mandela’s childhood, during a Xhosa initiation ritual in which the young Mandela is covered in white face paint. We are reminded here that Mandela, of royal blood, was trained to be a warrior and that his Xhosa name, Rolihlahla, which is often translated as “the one that shook the tree” also translates as “trouble-maker”. It is a foreshadowing of many things to come.

Flashbacks are prominent motifs in the film: moving from Mandela’s boyhood days, to images of the young Winnie Mandela, to flashbacks of his mother and children. Also prominent in the film is the juxtaposition between the portrayal of violence in South Africa with the actual historical footage of anti-apartheid movements throughout the world against a soundtrack of Gil Scott-Heron proclaiming: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”.

The film comes full circle, beginning with the rolling hills of Qunu with Mandela as a young boy, and ending in Qunu with Mandela as an elderly man surrounded by children. Long Walk to Freedom proves that in the tried and true tested legacy of biopics, a life is near impossible to get it just right.

But the idea is not to stop trying.