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FILM REVIEW: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Published On December 20, 2013 | By John Hanshaw | FILM REVIEWS

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MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM

Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Fana Mokoena, Jamie Bartlett, Dean Lotz
Screenplay by William Nicholson
From the autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela

Produced by Anant Singh
Directed by Justin Chadwick
Director of Photography: Lol Crawley
Production Design by Johnny Breedt

What a year 2013 has been for stellar, inspirational film biographies of inspiring, courageous, tough and successful men who fought valiantly against bigotry, prejudice, civil and human rights violations and social injustice: “42,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “12 Years a Slave,” and now “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” the riveting, sweeping, epic and rousing life story of South African lawyer, civil rights activist, political prisoner and, eventually, president Nelson Mandela.

“Mandela” fully captures the essence that was Nelson Mandela—a never-give-up fighter for basic civil rights who always knew his cause was right, fought for this cause on several levels—some of them, yes, criminal—continuously fought for his cause—even while in prison for a horrendous, unbelievable 27 years—and continued to fight out of prison, despite the potentially dangerous consequences to his own personal freedom, the impact of that fight on his family and friends (good and bad), and the political implications that always surrounded his fight. Nelson Mandela’s story is well-known, but, unbelievably and amazingly, the full, complete life story of Nelson Mandela—from childhood to his early years as a lawyer to his days as an activist to his years in prison to his eventual release and election to the presidency–has never really been produced—until now. And what a film “Mandela” is—a film that will inspire you get out there and fight against social injustice, and to always admire the bravery, courage, tenacity and heroic man that really was Nelson Mandela.

And what an incredible true story Mandela’s life truly was—an heroic and epic story that has all the elements of a classic Shakespearean or Greek tragedy centered around a highly-intelligent and talented leader who is also, like any human, also a troubled, conflicted and haunted man. Mandela grew up a child in a rural village, saw his potential early in life and had early success as a dapper lawyer in smart suits, fighting against injustice within the system, arguing cases in a most professional manner. But he also saw the dark side of South African life—the racial segregation, the horrors and terrors of the insane social madness stupidly branded “apartheid,” and the just plain idiocy and stupidity of government-sanctioned hatred, racism, bigotry and prejudice. In a matter of time, Mandela joined the then-radical and activist African National Congress, who did fight violently against the government, but with a core dedication to implementing real change—and real equality and acceptance of all people, no matter their race. In due time Mandela and his comrades in arms—a close-knit group of true friends and activists who did care about racial equality, freedom and social change deep in their hearts—were rounded up and imprisoned in the truly horrifying, terrifying monstrosity of a prison, the secluded and moronic—and just basically psycho—hell that was known as Robben Island. And there, and at another prison, Mandela was imprisoned for the staggering period of 27 years, and throughout his unjust imprisonment, he and the others were subjected to inhuman physical, mental and psychological torture, abuse and violence.

We all know the eventual happy ending, and what an ending it is: As the slightly bonkers South African leaders—who had mentally-ill notions of being some type of chosen leaders for their country, which was just insanity—regained some of their sanity, they realized they were waging an increasingly losing battle. They realized that times were changing fast, and, to them, most noticeably, they realized the worldwide pressure that was coming down on South Africa to end apartheid, end racial segregation, instill laws that guaranteed true freedom, release their political prisoners, in particular, release Nelson Mandela—and start true democratic elections, including democratic elections for president. This was all eventually done, Mandela and the others were released, and Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in prison, subsequently became the first democratically-elected president of South Africa.

You couldn’t write a better fictitious script. The story speaks for itself. And, of course, this isn’t giving anything away, as the world knows Mandela’s story.

The challenge, as in any film biography, is to tell a known story honestly, truthfully, masterfully, elegantly, in an entertaining and engaging manner and to bring the familiar story to life with freshness, vitality, energy and intelligent, probing insight. Just like with this year’s “Captain Phillips” and “Saving Mr. Banks” and “42” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” the filmmakers are challenged with telling a story in which everyone knows the outcome, but with also telling a story that people will want to watch, will care about, and will be involved in from start to finish.

Happily, and fortunately, all of these films this year succeed on these levels—including the superb “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

An early indicator of the eventual quality filmmaking that will ensue with “Mandela” is the overall look of the film—a polished look, of course, but also a very natural, down-to-earth, documentary-style, even somewhat gritty and tough look (thankfully, no, there’s no annoying, irritating and moronic shaky cameras or quick-cut editing of oddball camera angles or any of that other now-reviled manure). This type of naturalistic look, thanks to production designer Johnny Breedt and director of photography Lol Crawley, takes you completely out of fake, phony Movieland, with too-clear and too-brightly-lit sound stages and over-done sets and false-looking locations, and puts you directly and realistically right into the villages, small towns, apartments and meeting rooms of South Africa, with all its attendant dirt and grit and gravel and oppressiveness and darkness. You feel the early, rural life of Mandela in the naturalistic early childhood scenes shot out in the country; you feel the growing impatience and difficulties that the young lawyer Mandela feels as segregation starts to spiral out of control in the courtrooms, government halls and the very streets of his native country; and you feel the desolation, loneliness, terror, fright, isolation and just-plain horror of the prisons, the prison cells and the prison facilities. The sets are somewhat gritty, with dirt and grime and grunge, when appropriate, and the photography is muted, at times, with dark colors and grays and shadows, indicating the darkness and fear that people of color had to live in during those dark times. The overall look and feel of the production and camera work is one of realism, reality and truth.

And when people speak about fighting the government, yes, the language is eloquent and inspirational and seemingly overdone, but, in reality, these activists were educated, intelligent, dedicated men who were going to fight their cause no matter the consequences—and the language of such men is indeed often eloquent, inspirational and beautiful. Look at the words, diaries, journals and letters of some of history’s greatest activists, fighters and rebels for a good cause, and their words do inspire and lead, and they are indeed eloquent and highly intelligent. Nelson Mandela was one such leader—while fighting a seemingly unwinnable fight, he spoke intelligently, eloquently, smartly—and diplomatically. This is why even his captors and enemies respected him—and, in some cases, cared for him, wanted to work with him, and saw within him a chance to work on actual peace. This was, all in one, the intelligence, positiveness and magic of Nelson Mandela.

And this is the Mandela that is so perfectly depicted in the film by the wondrous Idris Elba, who delivers a career performance of eloquence, intelligence and inspiration—talking softly, carrying a big intellectual stick, peering into the minds and intellects of his enemies, and constantly, continuously, working on government officials, prison officials, prison guards, his family, his followers, his fellow activists, world leaders, and others, to work toward equality and freedom. Elba shows us this man not in an overdone, hammy manner, but instead in a very steady, very calm, very peaceful and, at times, very serene and subtle manner. You have the time to look into Mandela’s mind and think with him, as he thinks his thoughts, up on the screen. Elba’s performance, which carries and anchors and steadies the film from his first scenes to his last, is measured, subtle, quietly powerful and elegantly delivered—just as the real-life Mandela worked his magic. Elba also succeeds in the always-difficult task of portraying the same man from his gung-ho, physically energetic days in his twenties and thirties on up to the same man in his later years, with hair graying, walk slowing, physicality slowing, and his overall, later-in-life approach to matters measured by experience, knowledge, insight—and the sorrow, pain and degradation that he had to endure.

 Elba’s performance is simply Academy Award-worthy—a portrayal of a larger-than-life man that presents the man in simple, humanistic, down-to-earth ways that audiences can relate to, instead of feel separated from. Filmgoers will feel incredibly close—and sympathetic—to Elba’s portrayal of Mandela, and, at times, the acting is powerful enough that audiences will cringe, gasp and cry. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances for an actor, and Elba succeeds in a great performance. He is assisted by a worthy cast, led by the beguiling, fetching Naomie Harris as Mandela’s equally complex and conflicted wife, the beautiful, tough and similarly dedicated activist and fighter Winnie Mandela. Her story, too, is epic and courageous and inspiring. The two were meant for each other, despite battling seemingly outrageous odds. Harris portrays Winnie Mandela with all her faults and contradictions and quirks as openly, honestly and truthfully as Elba does with his portrayal of Mandela. As we all learn, no one is perfect, not even the greatest of heroes, and all heroes do have their faults, contradictions, quirks and imperfections. A true biography shows all sides of its protagonists, and, to its honest credit, “Mandela” does show the good and the bad sides of the personalities of Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

 Director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson succeed with the difficult tasks of not just adapting a worldwide well-known tale of a worldwide well-known political and social justice leader, but they provide the right balance of eloquence in the direction and dialogue with that noted grittiness, violence, darkness and down side of the fight. The violence in the streets, the tough language that people used blatantly against blacks, the degrading and inhumane treatment of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, other prisoners and blacks in general—these elements must be shown directly and honestly to be able to present this story in an open and truthful manner. However, there is never gratuitous and horribly graphic violence, and the violence and darkness is, of course, expertly balanced by the eloquence of the activists’ words and deeds, the positive aspects of their fight, and the eventual breakdown of segregation in the overall story. That balance between good and evil, dark and light, is required in any story and any biography, of course, but that balance is sometimes off-kilter in too many Hollywood films and film biographies, where the writer and director get carried away with their own righteousness and egotism. That doesn’t happen with “Mandela,” as Chadwick and Nicholson eventually tear down the dark walls of prison and segregation and open up the film to the light that is equality, voting, democracy and freedom.

With an equally stellar and honest supporting cast, including veteran South African actors who have to play some of the most vile prison and government officials, “Mandela” offers a talented cast of actors playing strong-willed, difficult characters who were so dedicated to their cause, they indeed adopted, at times early in their career, violent methods. But their core convictions are so sincere, you understand what drove them—including Nelson and Winnie—to their actions, And while the evil, somewhat insane government and prison officials are horrendous, the actors make them watchable and interesting, which is never easy.

The film’s locations and sets accurately and adequately portray the period times of Mandela’s story, from the mid 20th century through to his release from prison in 1990 and his eventual election to the presidency. Cars, clothes, posters, offices, even some speech and words, accurately reflect the respective time periods shown in the story.

There’s no denying the emotional impact of seeing “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” on Dec. 12, 2013—exactly one week after Nelson Mandale’s death at the age of 95 on Dec. 5, 2013. But the film stands on its own, and succeeds greatly and on an epic scale, despite being screened and released and reviewed during the same month as Mandela’s death.

Nelson Mandela, who wrote the book “Long Walk to Freedom” that the film is based on, fortunately lived to see his life story portrayed on film. He also lived a long life and saw his ascension from political prisoner to the first democratically-elected president of the country that previously imprisoned him. And he forgave his captors and his enemies, he despised violence, he hated hatred, and he preached love above all else. He was simply a great, heroic man, and Elba, Chadwick and Nicholson work together expertly to bring that great man to such human life in “Mandela.” The film can stand as one of many tributes to the great and wondrous life that was the life of Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela completed his long walk to freedom to see himself elected president. And he lived to see some progress in obtaining democracy and racial equality in his home country, and elsewhere. But all one has to do is read the news every day in 2013, and you can still see—in China, in Russia, in parts of Africa, in South America, in the Mideast, and, still, here in the good ol’ USA—that Mandela’s dream of peace, love, social justice, racial equality and true democracy is still, unfortunately, a great work in progress with a long way to go to reach complete success. With Nelson Mandela’s death, and with the story told so well in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” one message stands out loud and clear: The world needs more Nelson Mandelas.

The long walk to freedom continues to this day and, alas, will continue a while longer into the future. 

 

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