Although he already has box office records broken in South Africa, the new biopic Mandela: long march to freedom mostly got mediocre reviews, or worse. Scott Tobias from Dissolve wrote that this “dull, bright and simple film” provides “a lesson on how not to do a historical biopic. “Write in Variety, Scott Foundas called him “solidly reverent, chained to the most terrible conventions of mythological biopic, and very well the sight of a white man on the “dark” continent. Even the closest to a rave, Stephen Holden’s New York Times, focused mainly on the film universally acclaimed core performance pair: Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela and Naomie Harris as his second wife, Winnie.
But a day after the great man died at the age of 95, it has to be argued that for those new to Mandela’s life and times, you could do worse than Mandela: Long march to freedom. (Much worse.Yes, the film makes the obtuse mistake of trying to cram its entire life extraordinary – and by extension the South African anti-apartheid movement and its revolutionary transition to majority rule, both of which have become almost synonymous with Mandela – in a running time feature film. And yes, he commits all kinds of little biopic crimes, from burying his star in age-old makeup to Bono’s explosion on the credits.
Where the film is strongest, however, is in its depiction of Mandela’s young adult life and the years immediately preceding his imprisonment on Robben Island – exactly the time that most Americans, accustomed to their image of Mandela as the benevolent and beatific grandfather of a nation, know the least about. There is precious small pictures of young Mandela, who seems to have been a godsend for filmmakers and for the beautiful island of Elba, allowing them to imagine the dashing young Johannesburg lawyer and skillful magnetic resistance fighter without having to compare their work to an audiovisual recording massive.
I have noticed on social media over the past few days that many people, especially the younger ones, seem shocked that Mandela and other members of the African National Congress have only been removed from the US terrorism watch list in 2008. (Really, they seem shocked that they were ever on the list in the first place.) Those who dig a little deeper seem even more shocked that Mandela, a true paragon of grace and forgiveness, also co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (Lance of the Nation), the militant armed wing of the ANC. For those new to history, Mandela usefully presents, albeit in a simplified and super-rationalized form, a context for these facts, describing the literal war waged against blacks by a white supremacist government, and showing how the apartheid government characterized the act of oppressed people of taking up arms in a war already done against them as “terrorism”. The movie doesn’t make these points in a subtle or artful way. But that makes them, and that’s something.
Really, however, the main reason to check Mandela this weekend is for those two performances. Elba looks nothing like Mandela, but his charisma shoots off the screen: he walks into a room and you can feel the electrons in the air reorganizing. He’s the guy anyone would follow into battle. Elba always lets you watch Mandela think about it, whether he’s struggling to keep his famous composure after learning of his son’s death in prison or calmly outwitting a squad of white government officials in negotiations leading up to the release of. Mandela.
And if the Island of Elba humanizes a secular saint, Harris achieves a perhaps more difficult feat by invoking empathy and understanding for Winnie Mandela, whose reputation was irreversibly tarnished when she was involved in multiple counts of assault, kidnapping, murder and attempted murder in the late 1980s. The film does not excuse Winnie Mandela’s crimes, but depicts the South African government’s reign of terror against her and her children, including harrowing night raids, constant harassment, subpoena at residence and, at one point, a morale-shattering 17-month period. stay in solitary confinement – this allows Harris to suggest how a bright, idealistic young woman could have been literally and systematically driven mad by a mindless diet. It’s a success – and so is it Mandela: long march to freedom, at least in the moments when it moves away from its actors and its history.