Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela campaigning against the pass laws

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela campaigning against the pass laws

Watching Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom in a crowded cinema yesterday, the thought occurred, as the credits rolled, that it has been not just Mandela and the people of South Africa who have made a long  journey to freedom.  We all have.  When I was a university student in the late 1960s it would have been unimaginable that a major film, backed by American and European film distributors, would have told the story of a black South African jailed for planning and carrying out acts of sabotage in pursuit of one man one vote.   It’s a mark of the transformation in political and cultural attitudes since then that a Hollywood-style biopic about the radicalisation of a young black lawyer who starts out committed to non-violence before having a change of heart should be a box office hit and in line for success in the BAFTAs and Oscars.

It’s sobering to recall that in the same decade that Mandela and his nine comrades began their life sentences on Robben Island, black Americans were also struggling, and dying, in their pursuit of civil rights and economic emancipation, while entrenched racism and discrimination persisted in this country.  In 1969, along with thousands of other other students and anti-apartheid activists, I demonstrated against the South African Springbok rugby tour  of Britain: though the team of white Afrikaners had been selected on strictly racial grounds, the British political establishment thought it acceptable for the tour continue.  In the same year, at Liverpool University, students were met with incomprehension on the part of the university authorities when we demanded that the university divest itself of investments in South Africa and get rid of its racist Chancellor: ‘You cannot involve the whole university in a personal emotion’ was the response.

Rivonia trial

The end of the Rivonia treason trial

So, what of the film itself?  It would be fair to say that as an example of the genre to which it belongs – the biopic of a great man – it is an honourable achievement.  How could it be otherwise, given the extraordinary nature of Mandela’s story? Adapted by William Nicholson from Mandela’s 1995 autobiography, the screenplay avoids the major pitfall of most biopics – being over-respectful.  In the early scenes at least, the film does not shy away from certain less pleasant aspects of the young Mandela’s character in scenes that portray his womanising and the way in which he deceived and on occasions beat his first wife.

Indeed, a central thread in the narrative (as it is also in Mandela’s own telling in the book) is the terrible impact of Mandela’s political commitment on the family, and especially his children: his absence from home during the time he went underground as the ‘Black Pimpernel’ and the 27-year separation from his family during his imprisonment.  Again and again our attention is drawn to the wife whose husband returns home late or never at all, the children who hardly know their father. Heart-breaking moments foreground these personal traumas, such as when Mandela learns that his eldest son Thembi has been killed in a car accident and is refused permission to attend his funeral, and when he sees his daughter Zindzi for the first time, allowed to visit her father in prison now that she is sixteen.

The film’s success in presenting Mandela as a rounded character is due in no small way to the superb performance of Idris Elba, who – though he may not look like Mandela – certainly sounds like him and is completely convincing in the role, lending a crucial human dimension to what would otherwise be a routine, stylised epic.As Geoffrey MacNab wrote in his review for the Independent:

It is left to Elba to give emotional complexity to a story whose triumphant ending we all know well in advance. Elba’s performance is stirring and very effective. He doesn’t just capture the gait, voice, mannerisms and self-deprecating humour of an immensely well-known figure, but he shows us a character who is constantly changing. The young Mandela is very different from the sainted figure we encounter in the final reel. He is athletic (continually shown boxing), charismatic, angry and confrontational. He is also a pragmatist in the fight against white supremacy.

Naomie Harris has received praise, too, for her performance as Winnie Mandela.  She is good, especially as the younger Winnie, the social worker who captures Nelson’s heart. But in later scenes the steeliness of the radical who fiercely endorses violent retribution against alleged informers is sometimes undermined by the flicker of a cheeky grin.

The film’s portrayal of Winnie Mandela is another example of the film’s reluctance to airbrush its main characters.  To a large degree it rehabilitates Winnie, emphasising that her trials – arrests and re-arrests, banning orders and 16 months in solitary confinement, along with constant intimidation and in front of her children in her own home – add up to a story of brutalisation that ran in parallel to Nelson’s.  Her endorsement of  the horrific practice of ‘necklacing’ suspected informers and collaborators with burning, petrol-soaked tyres – unflinchingly presented – was, the screenplay suggests, a consequence of that brutalisation.

Even at over two and a half hours, it would be a challenge for the film to cover everything in Mandela’s own remarkable life, let alone do justice to the story of the struggle by the people of South Africa to free themselves from the shackles of apartheid.  You notice key historical moments that have been omitted or given only glancing treatment. Mandela’s rural childhood is glimpsed in the first few minutes, while the period when he ran a law firm in Johannesburg, in partnership with Walter Sisulu, rushes by, focussing as much on his womanising as the cases he was taking on and his growing politicisation.

The politics are dealt with a little superficially, mainly through the tried and tested device of inserting rapid-fire newsreel clips of national events or of the growing international isolation of the South African regime as the boycott campaign gains strength. One political event that is presented as an extended dramatised reconstruction is the massacre of anti-pass law demonstrators at Sharpeville in March 1960.  The reason is obvious – it was a pivotal moment in the development of the struggle against apartheid – but I think that for younger cinema-goers or those outside South Africa the oppressive nature of the pass laws might have been made more clear.

Another pivotal scene comes with Mandela’s speech from the dock at the conclusion of the 1964 Rivonia treason trial.  It’s a stirring moment, worthy of Shakespeare, and highlights the stature of Idris Elba’s performance.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

The politics of the period of imprisonment on Robben Island are dramatised in two scenes. When Mandela and the other ANC leaders first arrive on the island, prison regulations stipulate that African prisoners must wear short trousers. Only Africans were given short trousers, for only African men were deemed ‘boys’ by the authorities (the ‘Coloureds’ in the ANC contingent were issued long trousers).  The ANC prisoners wage a successful campaign for all prisoners to be given long trousers, a small but symbolic victory. We see the moment of victory, though the form of protest that brought it about are left unclear.  Nevertheless, it represents a way for the screenplay to humanize the way in which apartheid denigrated black South Africans – and the way in which prison, in Mandela’s words, ‘not only robs you of your freedom [but] attempts to take away your identity.’

Another key moment is the arrival on the island of a new, younger generation of prisoners – militant Black Conciousness activists arrested after the Soweto uprising in 1976.  The young men, who have come to political maturity in the years when the ANC leadership was behind bars, are at first scornful of the ‘old men’ and of Mandela growing tomatoes on the small plot that the prison authorities have conceded.  Mandela instinctively reaches out, seeking to learn from the experience of the young generation, and their new approaches to political action and thought.

Mandela set free

Idris Elba and Naomie Harris: the day of freedom

The politics come through most clearly in the final section of the film when Mandela is released from prison, warily reunites with Winnie and negotiates an end to apartheid with representatives of the white power structure. There are compelling scenes in which Winnie and Nelson disagree bitterly over policy and the question of violence.  There are taut scenes in which powerful acting by both Idris Elba and Naomie Harris viscerally conveys the couple’s accumulated years of struggle and sacrifice.

Mandela’s reason for pursuing reconciliation is shown to be pragmatic as well as idealistic – a way to avoid a bloody black-on-black civil war. Elba, with whitened hair and heavily-pancaked face, suggests the elder Mandela’s probity and strength of personality, but his acting in these later scenes is more stilted. The scene in which we see him telling his wide-eyed grandchildren that they should not talk of violence against whites people (‘that is what they do to us, we must do better’) is a bit too sentimental and mawkish.

If you have read Mandela’s book, or lived through the years of anti-apartheid struggle, you will learn nothing new from this film. You may feel that it is too big a sacrifice to endure Bono wailing about ‘ordinary love’ on the soundtrack (though you can walk out – he only starts as the credits roll). Nevertheless, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom does provides a stirring, honest and largely unsentimental account of Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary life.  For a film that says something new and interesting about Mandela we will have to wait for something from what is currently cinema’s most vital genre – documentary.

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