Listen to David H. Anthony’s review, above.
As December brought an end to 2013, Justin Chadwick’s long awaited homage to the now late Madiba, Nelson Mandela, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom was released in theaters. The link between Mandela and Long Walk To Freedom was by no means automatic, or even generally known. When I informed the cashier at the ticket counter that I wished to see Long Walk to Freedom, she responded with a quizzical look, until I added, Mandela.
So it is that many, maybe the majority of theatregoers who venture forth to see this new film of the life of Rohlihlala Mandela may also not realize that its title is that of the African National Congress leader’s autobiography. Better known perhaps, particularly by those who have seen the powerfully edited trailer of the film is that it stars the versatile Idris Elba as Madiba, and Naomie Harris as Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela, Madiba’s second wife, known by some as “Mother of the Nation,” a sobriquet with both positive and negative connotations.
Long Walk is a very interesting film as it dramatizes literally and figuratively the difficulties of capturing a world historical life in the space of ninety minutes at what may be the best time to have done it, when the memory of Madiba remains fresh, before it becomes encrusted with the barnacles of nostalgia or airbrushed by ennui.
First, to what Long Walk does best: Idris Elba is not a physical ringer for Madiba. No one would argue otherwise. But his voice comes as close to the cadences and timbre of this larger than life orator than that of any actor who has attempted to personify or impersonate him on film. The list of those who have tried this is impressive.
Morgan Freeman, also not a Madiba lookalike, nonetheless did a phenomenal job in recreating the old man’s walk in Invictus from 2009 about the President’s embrace of a once all-white South African rugby team, the Springboks. Dennis Haysbert was Mandela in a little known 2007 yarn, Goodbye Fofana, on the relationship between Madiba and one of his jailers or warders as they say in South Africa. Sidney Poitier played him in a 1997 TV movie Mandela and De Klerk, next to Michael Caine as F.W. De Klerk. Danny Glover played Mandela alongside Alfre Woodard as Winnie in an earlier 1987 TV movie, Mandela. Each characterization captured some aspect of Mandela, but no one has achieved the sound that Elba found for his protagonist, that he said was informed by his Sierra Leonean father. That makes this film unique.
Noamie Harris as Winnie and Terry Pheto as Evelyn Mase, Madiba’s first wife were equally compelling. Moreover, each of them looked the part. The location vistas of South Africa were breathtaking, as the landscape truly is. Where Long Walk falls short, however, is its overreliance upon telling the Great Man story, for as conscious as he was of his role in history, and as secure as people would say he was in his ego, Madiba always presented himself as one of many, as a cadre within a movement, a disciplined member of the ANC.
Some of that is lost in this version. Unless you know the principals, you might miss Govan Mbeki in the cohort of Robben Island treason trialists, featuring Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada in the movie. Fortunately, I met both Sisulu and Mbeki and was guided in Robben Island by Kathrada but it is not clear in the film how close they all were. However, Long Walk is a very special endeavor to tell a story that needed telling and for that reason I urge you to see it.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a film by Justin Chadwick