Mandela biopic tackles South Africa's tangled history

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Directed by Justin Chadwick

Opens Dec. 25

In one of the more poignant scenes in the biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the elderly Nelson Mandela (expertly played by Idris Elba, The Wire's Stringer Bell) makes his way to a balcony inside the president's house in Pretoria, a house he resides in following South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994. He's flanked by four bodyguards, including one white man. A row of army officers-all white-face him and salute in pairs to the first-ever black president of a majority-black nation.

It's a stark contrast from four years prior, when Mandela was released after 27 years of imprisonment and observation into a country being torn apart by inter- and intra-racial warfare: the forces at work being either by the South African government's army and police forces firing on black protestors; or black South Africans in the townships warring with one another, killing traitors to the cause of justice by wrapping a car tire around the bodies of said traitors, dousing them in gasoline, and setting them alight in a practice called necklacing.


Mandela's election on April 27, 1994-really, the election of the African National Congress, with Mandela at its head-was the triumph of a man and his legacy, in two parts. In a country whose Dutch Calvinist and British colonial roots dictated that black and coloured Africans were inferior for their particular shade of skin, democratic majority rule shined for the first time in a land where "Whites Only" signs once hung. And after emerging from prison at age 71, Mandela returned to political life not with pitchfork (or AK-47) raised, but instead with a clarion call for peace with his white oppressors and the assurances that South Africa would be a nation for people of all colors. As was often mentioned this month following Mandela's death on Dec. 5, he invited his former Robben Island prison guard to sit in the front row of his inauguration.

Based on Mandela's autobiography, Mandela does a good job tying this knot together. When the film ends with countless throngs praising their new president, viewers are left with the impression that South Africa post-apartheid will reconcile the fears of a former, bigoted white regime with the hopes and vindication of a new black majority.

Truncating that national history within the biographical story of Nelson Mandela proves a difficult task, even in two and a half hours. Subtitles denote the historical timeline, and the movie follows sequentially, as one might expect, starting with Mandela's years as a young Xhosa boy. But for those without an understanding of the history of South Africa, making sense of both the dates and the subtle clues dropped in different scenes or bits of dialogue is a rough task. For instance, the film makes it seem as if Mandela becomes politically active within the African National Congress during the 1957 bus boycotts at the Alexandra station just outside Johannesburg; but he was actually elected to the national secretary of the African National Congress Youth League in 1948. Several scenes earlier in the movie, the notion of apartheid, instituted in 1948, and the despotic Homeland policy-by which the white National Party forced blacks and coloureds into specific, tiny geographical regions within South Africa-is given a passing reference: As Mandela and his first wife move into a glorified shack, an incredulous Mandela jokes about the diminutive nature of his new home.

This isn't for lack of trying on director Justin Chadwick's part, and certainly no film could do the duty of explaining a history as complex as South Africa's. But by committing himself to making a film about Mandela's life, Chadwick is already resigned to not delivering the full context of significant historical moments. How else would the movie get finished? Pass laws-any non-white South Africans had to carry a pass to travel outside of the Homelands-are explained very quickly, in a scene where a man caught without his pass is arrested, then beaten to death. Still, the setup is good enough to demonstrate why a later scene where Mandela burns his pass is no light-hearted act of dissent.

Quite impressive, however, is how the film depicts the deeply personal transformation of Mandela. Elba plays Mandela the tomcat well, and it's in this role that his first wife leaves him and he remarries Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (Naomie Harris). The struggles between Nelson and Winnie center strongly on what might be seen as his calcification while locked away and her radicalization in the name of justice during their time apart. Even though Winnie walks with Mandela as he's unconditionally released from prison, they are emotionally distant, having been apart for a long period of their lives. You can feel the exhaustion in Elba's voice as he plays the old Mandela, a weary man who knows, and indeed says, that his life with his wife and two daughters was ripped away from him by a terrorizing government.

But he's strikingly hopeful, and as Mandela dances at a late-night party following South Africa's first democratic elections, you know that he was destined for a higher calling-that he wasn't meant to be the father for a family, but the father of a nation.