Mandela: Well-Acted but Conventional Biopic

mandela_long_walk_to_freedom_5It took a long time, but it was always clear that there’s a good biopic material in the 1994 autobiography of the same name, Madlea: Long Walk to Freedom, a chronicle of the much respected and admired Nelson Mandela


Spanning decades, “Mandela” the movie is as earnest, routine, and well-intentioned as Gandhi, Richard Attenborough’s 1982 Oscar-winning chronicle.  Both films depict noble politicians, who have become icons and revered leaders by their populace and the rest of the world.

As directed by Justin Chadwick, who previously made the equally solemn “The First Grader,” and the overly literal “The Other Boleyn Girl, Mandela leaves much to be desired as a movie.  Yet it revolves around such an important and charismatic personality, and it is acted with such bravura gravitas by Idris Elba that one is likely to disregard its dramatic shortcomings.

mandela_long_walk_to_freedom_10Structurally, Mandella is a conventional, survey-like picture, which could be used in high schools as learning material.  Its narrative follows a chronological order that relies (perhaps too heavily) on turning points in the long and rich life of its central figure, from youth all the way to assuming leadership in his newly established democracy.

Committed to the absurd, racist notions that “science has proved that the brains of white men are superior to the brains of black men,” and that “‘The Bible has revealed that God made white men to rule over black men,” the white power elite of South Africa embarked on a radical experiment, apartheid, which for many decades was not only enforced by the most powerful army on the continent, but was also supported by the governments of the U.S. and the U.K.

“Mandela” spans the exceptional life of a man who begins as an ordinary citizen, dwelling on his journey from early years as a herd boy in South Africa’s rural Cape region, to his days as a lawyer and Apartheid resistance leader, and on to his twenty-seven years spent in Robben Island prison before becoming the nation’s first democratically elected President.

mandela_long_walk_to_freedom_8“Mandela” the movie benefit from the intelligent and fair scenario by William Nicholson (who had previously penned Shadowlands, Gladiator, and Les Miserables, among others).

As is well known, Mandela himself chose Morgan Freeman to impersonate him if a Hollywood movie is made, but, alas, since most of this picture depicts the long imprisonment of Mandela (27 years, to be exact), when he was a young to middle-age man, the choice to play him fell on Idris Elba, who turns in a commanding, terrific performance that requires him to be in almost every scene.

Necessarily episodic, the saga is divided into chapters, whose titles indicate time and place of various marriages and divorces, births and deaths, demonstrations and counter-attacks occur in the next half a century.

The film begins with images of children running through a wheat field in Xhosa village, where a ritual (rite of passage into manhood, to borrow from anthropology) takes place.  One of the boys is Mandela, who seems to show from early age unique perspective and political sensibility

We observe Mandela’s formative years as a Johannesburg lawyer in the 1940s, his growing outrage over his country’s racial politics, involvement in the African National Congress (ANC), and a poorly described first marriage to ANC activist Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto), which is quickly followed by second union with the attractive and politically alert Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris, better known until now for her James Bond picture), then a social worker.

At least one reel depicts Mandela’s imprisonment, initially for a life sentence, but actually spending 27 years.  Labeled Prisoner 46664, he is sentenced for anti-government actions, which he readily and proudly accepts.  Despite the torment and agony of being in a tiny cell, there is not much drama in this situation (Most prison films suffer from this inherent problem).

What brings some life to these inevitably dull sequences is a series of visits by Mandela’s wife.  Though her portrait is far superior to the one Jennifer Hudson handles in “Winnie,” the screenplay doesn’t do the character justice, and we are expected to believe at face value her transformation from a loving and loyal wife to one that feels neglected and dejected, offering sort of an explanation for her unfaithfulness.

To be sure, there are several touching moments, but they are interspersed in a conventional scenario, directed in an impersonal way (Chadwick’s previous films have shown that he is a director with no distinctive style—yet).   Your heart will beat at the sight of Mandela seeing his daughter Zindi for the first time in a decade, or the passionate look exchanged between the prisoner and his wife Winnie after years of separation.  The film also offers a brief, horrific glimpse at the imprisonment of Winnie herself, who spent two years in jail

The saga comes to a climactic point in February 1990, when Mandela literally takes the long walk (of the film’s title) to freedom out of an isolated house situated in Victor Verser Prison.

However, trying to do too much within its time frame, Mandela attempts to capture elements of both the public and personal lives of one of the world’s most revered leaders, an esteemed statesman in modern history and an international icon.

Director Chadwick has acknowledged his awesome challenge in making a movie about the most revered statesmen of the 20th Century, and a most beloved individual, and indeed, the whole movie it too reverential and not critical or grounded enough to generate strong dramatic interest.

Ultimately, no two-hour picture can do justice to Mandela’s long, rich, and impactful life, and while the movie performs a useful public service in dispensing crucial information about the politician and the man, the treatment is too sprawling.  The subject may be more suitable for a TV mini-series than a single feature.