MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM Review

Prior to seeing this film I knew little about Nelson Mandela past the major facts that he spent twenty-seven years in prison only to become the President of South Africa. He was a revolutionary, a philanthropist and a beacon of hope to people that, in my distant learnings, would never be associated with the word politician. Turns out there was much more to his story than I could have imagined as this wasn't simply a man who went through the ups and downs of immaturity to be re-born in prison and make a difference once he was set free, but this was a man dedicated from birth to leaving an impression, to doing something that would make the ones he loved, proud. This was not a leader bent on gaining power for personal gain or to feed his ego, but a man determined to make a difference in the lives of his people and to allow his family and friends to walk free in their own land. Naturally, there has no doubt been some type of flattery given to the man as this is playing up the acts he initiated and was willing to die for, but none of it comes off as such in the film and despite the fact I would need to do immeasurable research to fact check every event the film chronicles never do the actions our titular subject takes part in feel lacking in genuine reason or motivation. They are simply part of what makes this man who he was and while much of that is conveyed successfully through the obstacles encountered and overcome by Mandela there is also no lack of that raw human element that the character would feel forced and inaccurate without. Idris Elba, in a career defining performance, delivers on every level a man who is, despite his consistent talks of peace, not afraid to walk the walk and that is what makes him so appealing to his people, so trustworthy to his peers and so impressionable to those with power. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a solid two hours and twenty minutes of biography that is unable to follow the typical story structure of these films due simply to the unique consequences of Mandela's story, but despite a few hang ups here and there in only skimming over certain details and opening subplots without any further exploration or eventual resolution this is still every bit the engaging experience you might expect it to be and a film that implies a sweeping and powerful scope such a life should be represented by.

Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) comforts his wife Winnie (Naomie Haris) upon being sentenced to life in prison.
We meet Nelson Mandela in the midst of a ceremony in the rural village where he grew up. These opening moments, these reflections of sorts as Elba's booming interpretation of Mandela's voice echoes over the beautifully shot images of children running through an old house, of he and his peers being prepped with ceremonial body paint and splashing around in a body of water. We understand we won't stay here long, but these opening moments give us a strong visual and almost palpable sense of where this man came from, a far cry from being the first democratically elected president of South Africa. It is immediately impressive. We are then coaxed into 1942 as a twenty-four year old Mandela moves away from his village and begins a life that he hopes will make his parents proud. In Johannesburg, South Africa we meet the rare black and still  not respected lawyer in Mandela as his charisma and his willingness not to compromise comes through as we glimpse the early influences of what defines his character later on. It was not an easy position to be in and that is made clear. The fact Mandela didn't remain in the no doubt comfortable spot of being a lawyer and slowly gain prosperity over the course of his tenure with a certain firm or company, but that he instead stuck to his guns and that first instinct to always make a difference. In order to do this Mandela joins the ANC or the South African National Party and becomes a major player among the leaders of this organization. While this is happening we see him mess around with plenty of women and use his charisma for other purposes as well that paint a not so flattering picture of the man in a film I expected to glorify him completely. We see him get married to Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto) and have two children with her and that he is not a good father and that he cheats on his wife. The actions of Mandela never feel sugar coated, but the picture isn't judging him either, more attempting to understand the grand journey he went on and how he became the powerful influence on the world we know today. By the time we reach 1960 Mandela has co-founded a militant group and is leading sabotage campaigns against the apartheid government that lead to his eventual arrest where he is convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The film tries to do too much, tries to cover too large an amount of time and that is almost as obvious from the beginning as Elba's towering stature is. I was under the impression this was going to be a full on biography and so I knew to expect to be short changed in some departments, but what makes me give that a pass for the most part with this film specifically is that besides the fact the events and the twenty-seven years Mandela spent in prison are, on a base level, extremely captivating there is also plenty of strong acting here that develops into good character work and an understanding of who these people might have actually been and why they sacrificed so much to be the people they wanted to be. A large portion of the film stays on Mandela while in prison and little in the way of what is going on outside his walls for those twenty-seven years and it might be easy to say that the film would have been better, more to the point, or better able to get to the root of who Mandela was if it had only focused on a specific set of years spent on Robben Island or even just the full time he was imprisoned. Still, many people would agree that it is our actions that define who we truly are and in that sense we see the type of action Mandela took to get where he could make real change, a difference that mattered and more than anything I was able to get a sense of who this man was and why he was that way. If not for the actions and events the film depicts, but for Elba's powerful performance. The film has some truly staggering moments; the scene in which Mandela and his partners are sentenced to life in prison, while overwhelmed by a demanding orchestral score, is inherently powerful and both Elba and Naomie Harris who plays Mandela's second wife and life partner Winnie Madikizela, show why the people they are portraying are truly inspirational. Harris deserves a paragraph of her own to pick apart and look closely at the power and presence she gives Winnie as she not only serves as our link to the actions of the outside world during Mandela's imprisonment, but also to the most affecting moments of the film. Those most poignant of moments come when Mandela speaks to those he loves and is unable to touch or watch grow up from within his prison cell. They simultaneously reaffirm why he did what he did and how much of his life he is desperate to get back.

Mandela server 27-years in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the state.
While Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is one of those films I feared I would never understand growing up simply because I don't have much care or knowledge for the way governments and other forms of power are constructed or work and even the idea that I wasn't overly familiar with the subject matter would allow me to feel nothing but lost in the vast amount of material covered here. And it is of course possible that those who do know more about Mandela than I did prior to going into the film will be bored because they already know what is going to happen and won't necessarily learn anything new from the experience, but I found it to be fascinating if not for the insight into what action Mandela took to get where he was when I first heard his name, but to get the small, honest moments in his life that could connect with anyone on any level. In one scene, the first time Winnie visits her husband in prison, there is an overhead shot showing the physical separation of the two of them and it exemplifies the huge cavern their justice system represents while dangling what they know they are deprived of right in front of their faces. It is the kind of shot that conveys a multitude of words in a single moment and displays clearly the sacrifice Mandela made in honor of his beliefs and the regret he accepts that comes along with it. Winnie very much does the same, accepting the troubles that come along with being married to Mandela and fighting back without building hatred for her husband. There seems as much to be said about Winnie as there is her husband and the struggles and tribulations she faced while being in the midst of the fight while her husband paid his price are no doubt as great as his. Another moment that stands out again comes from a meeting within the prison, but it is when Nelson and Winnie are allowed their first contact after twenty-one years of not knowing each others touch. The moment doesn't need dialogue, all its meaning is conveyed through Elba and Harris' performances and it is overwhelmingly powerful to the point it is hard to fault this film for doing anything else wrong as it gets these moments so right. This even emphasizes better the dynamics of how things build to a head between Nelson and Winnie once Mandela is released and it becomes clear his key to gaining power is not to exact revenge on the whites which Winnie opposes. How their lives hinge on the bigger picture, being the bigger person is extraordinary.

The biggest complaint here will again be that the film's bloated and has an excessive running time, but you can see those complaints from a mile away so I find it better to look past them. The pacing is well done and the chronicling of Mandela's twenty-seven years in prison includes the trials and tribulations of every day life while not getting hung up on one particular issue. There is a moment late in the film where Mandela calls his people to peace instead of war stating they could not win a war, but they could win an election and so he asks they vote rather than pick up their arms and fight. He says that as their leader he will always be there to lead them and to tell them when they are wrong and that to fight with violence would be wrong. It is a bold sentiment that more than anything makes you trust the man, lets you know if anything else he will be up front and honest with you and that sometimes you have to cause a little bit of trouble to make a real difference. Mandela dreamed of living without fear and without hatred and those objectives, while not present in every action he took, were his overriding sense of justice in every decision he made once he knew what needed to be done in order to make his home a place he could indeed find those qualities he yearned for. It was a captivating life that has given us a truly captivating film and deserves to be seen not just for how well it informs the audience of the events occurring throughout the titular mans life, but for the impression it will leave upon you.