Review by Pamela Zoslov
The narrative hews faithfully to Mandela's 1995 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, opening with Mandela (Idris Elba) narrating a recurring dream he has while in prison. In the dream, he visits his longed-for home, where he sees his wife, Winnie, their children and “everyone I have loved most in my life.” But they do not see him — he is like a ghost. The anecdote poignantly illustrates the grave cost of Mandela's commitment to human justice — a life sentence at the remote and brutal Robben Island, where Mandela and his co-defendants are greeted by the warden, who tells them tersely, “You will never touch a woman or a child again. You will die here.” Mandela wins an early victory: the right to wear long pants rather than the shorts assigned to black prisoners, who are called “boys” by the contemptuous and abusive guards.
Mandela's recollections are evocatively illustrated by Lol Crawley's cinematography, notably his childhood in the Transkei, the green-hilled coastal region where he was born in 1918 as the son of a local Xhosa chief. Mandela's birth name was Rolihlahla, which translates to “troublemaker”; he acquired the English name Nelson from a teacher at school. His early history is briskly and economically told, eliding some details of his childhood (his father being stripped of his chieftainship for challenging a white magistrate's authority, his father's death when Nelson was 9, which led to Nelson's privileged upbringing in the household of a Thembu regent.) We get a sense of his bucolic rural childhood, the traditional ritual of public circumcision at age 16, which Mandela recalled as “a sacred time.”
Young Nelson, or Madiba, his clan name, wanted “to make my family proud.” He studied and worked hard to became a lawyer, but the destiny implied by his name (which means “troublemaker”) follows him into adulthood, bringing recriminations from his mother, who disapproves of his activism.
The film shows Mandela as a smart young lawyer, confronting racism in the courtroom as he defends a black servant woman from an accusation of theft by a white employer who, while testifying, refuses to answer his questions because he is black. (Mandela triumphs, getting the case dismissed.) We see some of the the everyday brutalities inflicted on the majority African population by the ruling elites even in the years before the institutionalization of apartheid in 1948, as white policemen beat and murder blacks at their sadistic whim.
The film's timeline alters and compresses events. Mandela's political awakening and association with African National Congress (ANC) activist Walter Sisulu (S'Thandiwe Kgoroge) came earlier than the narrative suggests, before Mandela became a lawyer, for example. A thrilling scene dramatizes his early foray into activism, the great Alexandra bus boycott of 1943, in which Mandela, along with scores of fellow black protesters, rush the platforms marked “Europeans Only” and take their seats alongside whites.
Mandela's activism comes between him and his first wife, Evelyn, who wants him to live a normal provincial life. Mandela is portrayed as a man, not a secular saint. He is unfaithful to his wife, who eventually leaves him, taking their three children, a loss that would anguish Mandela for the rest of his life.
The fluidly edited film also does not shrink from portraying, in all their savagery, the violent horrors of apartheid, re-creating with stark veracity the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, in which 5,000 to 7,000 black protesters converged on a police station and were fired upon by police, who killed 69 people. The protesters were fighting the “pass laws” that restricted the movement of black South Africans, subjecting them to harassment and arrest. The aftermath of the massacre sent Mandela and his comrades underground when the South African regime banned the ANC. It was this event that marked Mandela's move from nonviolence to armed resistance.
Mandela's relationship with his second wife, Nomzamo Winnifred Madikizela (Winnie), is portrayed in all its complexity. We see Mandela courtship of the beautiful young Johannesberg social worker (she was 22, he was 40) and her later evolution, during her husband's 27-year imprisonment, into a murder-promoting revolutionary. The movie affords her a measure of sympathy, demonstrating that her radicalization was a response to severe persecution by South African officials, who placed her in solitary confinement for more than a year.) Nelson and Winnie divorced in 1996, six years after he was freed from prison, though their estrangement began much earlier. Nelson remarried in 1996.) Naomie Harris, who like Elba is British, is extraordinary in conveying Winnie's multifarious personality and transformations. Winnie Mandela is a figure both admired and reviled; Harris' sensitive performance allows insight into her motivations.
Not unexpectedly given the breadth of its subject, this is a long film at nearly two and a half hours. It seems to arrive at a natural ending point when Mandela is released from prison in 1990, coming home to a throng of cheering supporters. But on it goes, because there is much more to the story — the end, under the conservative president F.W. de Klerk (Gys de Villiers), of the unsustainable apartheid policy and Mandela's election in 1994 as the nation's first democratically elected president. And, on a personal level, there is Mandela's return, after nearly three decades' incarceration, to a world and a family dramatically changed. The portrayal of the long negotiations between de Klerk, Mandela and other government officials has a remarkably authentic flavor.
Even after he was incapacitated by age and sickness, Mandela remained a powerful global symbol of dignity and nonviolence. That is why his death, while not unexpected at age 95, was the occasion for massive outpourings of grief. Mandela's actions as president were often compromised, but he remained the beloved father of the nation (whereas the current president, the corruption-tainted Jacob Zuma, is widely despised). The ongoing problems facing South Africa, including mass poverty among black citizens, are beyond the scope of the film, which rightly focuses on Mandela's remarkable life, his struggles, his ideas, and his courageous mission to build a country of laws and equality. His legacy is, according to David Blair, who covered South Africa for The Telegraph: “an enlightened constitution, a free media capable of exposing Mr. Zuma’s excesses, a vociferous opposition, and genuinely independent judges.”
While he does not physically resemble Mandela, Elba infuses the role with Madiba's dignity, humor and gentle humanity. He is particularly touching as the older Mandela, whose mannerisms and speech patterns he has studied well. Like other transcendent leaders, from Jesus Christ to Martin Luther King, Mandela talks about love. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” he says, in a quote from his autobiography. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” 4 out of 4 stars.