When a film has the title “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” and its posters bear the tagline “It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die,” the main character is likely to be endowed with a halo before the last chords of the soundtrack swell to an uplifting finish.
Refreshingly, this biography of the late Nelson Mandela waits for 45 minutes or so before descending into legend. We see him as a smart lawyer in South Africa, a firebrand who believes violence against oppressive authority may be necessary when all peaceful means fail. But once he lands on Robben Island to begin his 27 years in various prisons, he turns into the ever-stoic hero we know.
Mandela’s death earlier this month did the picture no favors. Yes, it focused the world’s attention again on the brave, savvy fellow who became the first black president of his nation. At the same time, the massive amounts of publicity make this biography seem too familiar: We’ve heard about Mandela so recently and so thoroughly that only an extraordinary depiction of him could seem fresh.
William Nicholson’s screenplay, based on Mandela’s autobiography, has the power to surprise us in small moments: Mandela’s prison battle to get long pants instead of the shorts used to humiliate black “boys” or the womanizing he did during his first marriage. (He was married three times, most famously to activist Winnie Mandela. Because the film stops with his election as president in 1994, we don’t see his third wife.)
It also dramatizes the loving but contentious relationship between Nelson (Idris Elba) and Winnie (Naomie Harris), and it doesn’t shy away from her bitterness when he urges forgiveness toward white oppressors who repeatedly took her away from her children and put her in solitary confinement for a year.
Harris gives a nuanced performance, showing the naïve woman who went to prison and the implacable one who emerged. We see the freed Winnie urging civil war and telling followers to burn or shoot presumed black traitors to the cause. (Did you know Winnie Mandela got her own biopic in 2011, with Terrence Howard as Nelson and Jennifer Hudson in the title role? I’ve never seen it.)
But the bulk of the film consists of Nelson Mandela’s long years of patient suffering. Elba, who showed plenty of spark in the pre-prison scenes, settles into a long stretch of solemn dignity, conforming to our preconceptions of Mandela’s personality.
Mandela was a great man, an intelligent (even shrewd) philosopher and a compelling speaker. But he doesn’t seem to have been a conflicted person: He decided early on what he wanted and pursued it straightforwardly all his life. That rarely yields riveting drama, however well-intentioned filmmakers may be.
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