The History Place - Movie Review

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

In this reviewer’s humble opinion, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is underrated and its star, Idris Elba, is under-appreciated.  No doubt, this adaptation of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography was overshadowed by the other “black” film of 2013, Twelve Years a Slave, which was among the nine under consideration for Best Picture at the Oscars this weekend.  But at a time when the Motion Picture Academy is willing to nominate as many as ten films for top honors, and in a year when nine were nominated, room should have been made for Mandela.

Granted, there’s nothing fancy about this film.  It’s a straightforward account of the remarkable life of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable human beings – and that should be enough. 


How remarkable was Nelson Mandela?  Let me say that I never dreamed that Apartheid would end in South Africa without genocide.  If this statement sounds far-fetched, just look around the “Dark Continent.”  Better, and easier, yet, download the 2004 Don Cheadle film Hotel Rwanda.  From Sudan to Nigeria to Rwanda to the Congo, machetes and AK47s have carved and shot a swath of slaughter.  South Africa could very well have gone the same direction.  Mandela, directed by Justin Chadwick, suggests that it would have, had Nelson’s estranged wife Winnie (Naomie Harris) had her way.  Mandela did what even Gandhi had failed to do: prevent a race-fueled bloodbath. Remarkable!

The film opens with brief glimpses of Mandela’s (apparently happy) rural youth.  No explanation is offered of how he managed to become an attorney in the white South Africans’ Johannesburg.  A Xhosa of royal blood, he attended the historically black University of Fort Hare. He next studied law as the only black in his class at the University of Witwatersrand, graduating and entering the Jo-burg bar before the 1959 Extension of University Education Act barred blacks from “Wits.”

The film depicts Mandela’s early success as a named partner in his law firm with a bustling black clientele.  Black and white photos from those days – some shown to us with the film’s closing credits – confirm that Elba’s portrayal of a Beau Brummell of the South African bar is accurate.  Elba’s Mandela is cocky and crafty, winning cases while letting insults, such as being called “boy” from the bench, roll off his silk-suited back.

A new national regime at the close of the Forties resulted in a phalanx of race laws, collectively known to history as Apartheid.  Nelson and his first wife and kids were forced to relocate to one of the new black townships, Orlando, outside of the capital.  Nelson, who rose to the presidency of the African National Congress during the first half of the decade, initially resisted a violent response to these racial outrages.  Eventually, the futility of Gandhi-inspired peaceful resistance persuaded the ANC leader that his organization “had no alternative to armed and violent resistance.”

To this day, there are those who call Mandela a terrorist.  The charge is not without foundation.  When peaceful protests were met by gunfire, most memorably in Sharpeville in 1960, Mandela went underground with the ANC’s direct-action arm, which engaged in sabotage.  Captured, he was tried with his co-conspirators.  Escaping the death penalty, he and his comrades were packed off to Robben Island.

Mandela spent the next 18 years on the island, followed by another decade of prison and house arrest back on the mainland, while the black freedom movement gained momentum, supported around the globe by peaceful protests and boycotts of South Africa.  Eventually, the white government, led by Prime Minister De Klerk, opened negotiations with Mandela.  It took two years (1990-92) to achieve a free Nelson Mandela and free elections.  In my opinion, Elba does his best acting in this portion of the film, portraying a patient, almost Buddha-like Mandela, wearing down the opposition, until they understand that he holds the winning hand.

Did Elba deserve a Best Actor accolade for Mandela?  No, I don’t think so.  As I’ve said, it’s a straight-up story, so remarkable that it requires no histrionics to carry it.  Elba’s performance is appropriately low key.  Let it be said that I became an Idris Elba fan for his equally measured performances in the title role of Luther, a TV cop series of some 14 episodes (2010-13).  His film credits are mostly unremarkable.  Here’s hoping Mandela wins him the more remarkable roles with which he can reach his obvious potential.

Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language.
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Jim Castagnera is the author of 19 books. His latest is Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom - Official Website
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