Long Walk To Freedom review: A must watch for all politicians

Deepanjana Pal

Jan 24, 2014 16:45:37 IST

A little more than a month after his passing on 5 December, 2013, Nelson Mandela has been brought back to life by actor Idris Elba. The prosthetics that age Elba's Mandela may not be entirely easy on the eye, but the rest of Elba certainly is in Justin Chadwick's Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. The only time anyone will have mixed reactions to black prisoners being made to strip in the freezing rain by cruel white guards is when this abuse of power presents the viewer with the sight of Elba, near-naked.

While Elba may have a sexier stride than the real Mandela, it's a challenge to match Mandela's charisma. Elba manages for most of the film, but by the end of Long Walk To Freedom, you can't help wondering whether Mandela could have inspired a less straightforward biopic. Still, while Long Walk to Freedom is an ode to a legend, it's an intelligent one.

Chadwick's film is a straightforward, chronological look at Mandela's life from boyhood to old age. It's a carefully balanced film that may not do full justice to Mandela, but it's more invigorating than the filmi Mandela we saw in Clint Eastwood's Invictus. Mandela in Invictus was a smooth but unidimensional Great Man. In Chadwick's film, there's an attempt to complicate his character by showing his troubled personal life and the fact that his heroic stature was a result of Mandela choosing to privilege himself over comrades like Walter Sisulu of the African National Congress. Keenly aware of the responsibility of depicting Mandela accurately, the script sticks close to Mandela's autobiography. The result isn't always exciting, but it's mostly moving.

Powered by a wonderful perfomance by Elba, Long Walk to Freedom begins with shows Mandela as a young lawyer who doesn't see apartheid as particularly oppressive. At one point Sisulu, trying to woo Mandela for the ANC, asks Mandela if he likes being called "boy" by his white peers in court. "When I'm richer, better qualified and better dressed, they won't call me boy," Mandela says confidently.

 Long Walk To Freedom review: A must watch for all politicians

Idris Elba in a still from the film. Image courtesy: Official site

The civil unrest in South Africa in the 1960s shows Mandela the error in his thinking and soon, he's delivering rousing speeches for the ANC and needling the government. He's charismatic enough to be able to divert a packed cinema's audience from Elizabeth Taylor in her underclothes to apartheid and its evils. On the other hand is Mandela the family man: a womaniser, unfaithful to his wife, neglectful of his children. He may dream of his children and his family, but just as his mother complains that he left his home behind, so his wives and children find themselves alone while he's with his politics and comrades.

In the episodes in which Mandela discovers his politics, Long Walk to Freedom is an engaging watch. Swiftly, Mandela goes from speeches to living underground, making bombs and finally, incarceration. Mandela, Sisulu and three others were sentenced to life imprisonment for acting against the state. The judge said that this was South Africa showing its humane-ness. It seems more likely that the government feared the death penalty would turn these young leaders into martyrs and inflame the already angry black people. Granting them their lives but locking them up out of sight in Robben Island seemed a better way to defuse the situation.

Long Walk to Freedom doesn't really explore how Mandela was kept alive in South African politics while he was in prison. Instead, once Mandela enters Robben Island, the film loses its tempo with Chadwick and screenplay writer William Nicholson struggle to explain how Mandela remained relevant in prison while the rest of South Africa was burning. There's a little hint of this problem when a young Patrick Lekota sees Mandela in Robben Island, gardening like any retired old gent, and reacts with contempt. Lekota has also been interred, but he's bloodied and on the other, unprivileged of a fence within the prison.

In fact, Chadwick's version of Mandela's incarceration doesn't have the steely gloom Robben Island has in Mandela's autobiography. In the film, it's almost like a retreat from the madness outside. There's a sharp contrast between the routine and laughter shared by Mandela and his comrades, and what Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris) suffers. Winnie is repeatedly questioned and arrested by the police, despite there being no charges against her. She tells Mandela during one visit to Robben Island, the police time their visits so that they can take Winnie away just before her daughters are due to come home from school. They come home to an empty house, stung with fear of a state that can do what it wants to their parents. Without any warning, Winnie is one day placed in solitary confinement. She stays there for 16 months and is abused by her prisoners. While Mandela's prison stay isn't comfortable by any means, with his comrades and a sympathetic guard, Mandela comes across as less tortured than Winnie and others who suffer brute violence in the hands of the apartheid regime.

Perhaps the part that should ring most loudly for Indian viewers of Chadwick's film is the final chapter in which Mandela establishes himself as a leader and a politician. The confusion and divergent opinions among black South Africans surfaces repeatedly, threatening the movement to dismantle apartheid with chaos. When President De Klerk suggests sharing power in the process of dismantling apartheid, there is massive disagreement. Meanwhile, forces like the United Democratic Front opt for violent resistance.

Despite attacking the idea of sharing power with the white people as a young activist, the elderly Mandela supports De Klerk's suggestion. When Mandela is told that the black people of South Africa won't like this decision, Mandela replies, "Then we must make them accept. We are their leaders. That is our job."

Near the end of the film, in response to widespread violence carried out by armed black protesters, Mandela says to all those he has inspired, "I am your leader and as long as I am your leader, I will give you leadership. I am your leader and as long as I am your leader, I will tell you always when you are wrong. And I tell you now that you are wrong." It's a timely reminder of the difficult task of being a leader, rather than one who will be led by others. Just for this speech, Chadwick's film should be mandatory viewing for politicians in India. Perhaps they could take a few tips from a man who was flawed but powerful; who knew wisdom lay in changing in order to respond to a constituency's needs; and who had the strength of conviction to say unpopular things despite being a popular leader. Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom couldn't have come to India at a better time.

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2014 16:50:28 IST